En Blanc et Noir was truly an extraordinary program. Its subtitle: “A WWI Piano Commemorative” most certainly lived up to its billing in the first half with specific works written within the timeframe and whose inspiration for composers Debussy and Ravel came from the horrors all around them unleashed by the Great War.
After the break, it became a bit of a stretch to paint Ravel’s La Valse with the same thematic brush and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had already found its first life (premièred in 1913—was it actually the score that caused the infamous riot? What role did the dancing play; what sort of performance was it…?) before any WWI shots had been fired.
Leaving all of that aside, Jon Kimura Parker’s stellar arrangement and magnificent performance of Stravinsky’s masterpiece was by far and away the musical highlight of the evening. Parker dug deep, like a man possessed, delivering a unity of purpose that orchestral conductors past and present can only dream about. Having been weaned on Herbert von Karajan’s 1968 glossy-rich, detail-vague, ensemble-lite recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, comparing that with Parker’s singular vision once again reinforced the folly of championing sound over substance.
To be sure, the performances prior to intermission were beautifully played and had much to admire (more about that below), but none of them came near the intensity, sheer genius and raw, tribal sinews that marvellously bind together Stravinsky’s riot of colour and craft. With the obvious black-and-white reference being the keyboards—a pair of Steinways pressed into service for the program—the preponderance of purposeful greys brought to such vivid life by Parker completely overwhelmed everything else.
And as superb as it was, does programming such a work in a chamber music festival signal mission drift or a further expansion of the mandate beyond the “one player to a part” definition? Stay tuned.
La Valse is also an original orchestral work. The two-piano reduction, which can trace its way back to 1906 as a homage to Johann Strauss II, was given an uplifting if at times rough-and ready performance by James Parker and Pedja Muzijevic.
Finding its way to orchestral life (becoming a signature piece for conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama) after originating as a suite for solo piano, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin—with each movement dedicated to friends lost in WWI—was given a superlative performance by Hinrich Alpers. Here is a master of touch, balance and voicing. A slightly drier opening to the “Rigaudon” would have provided more contrast to its second section; the “Menuet” was wonderfully understated and a marvel at every turn.
James Parker teamed up with Alpers to excellent, empathetic effect for the opening En blanc et noir pour deux pianos. Muzijevic readily became the fifth hand, literally filling the single bench with James Parker and Alpers for a deft reading of the seldom-heard two-minute wonder, Frontispice.
Alpers completed the program with a deathly eerie, Berceuse héorïque, magically infused Pièce pour le Vêtement du blessé with an aura of hope, a tenderly rhapsodic Élégie and then closed the Debussy set with an affectionately illuminating rendering of Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon.
Events—chance or inevitable (as was pointed out by James Campbell regarding Brahms’ return to his art after hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld at today’s 3:00 p.m. concert, cross-reference below)—often inspire/drive composers’ creativity. Two questions, then, remain. Would any of the works from this concert’s first half have been written without WWI? How much more art might we have had if every person on all sides of the miserable conflict been commemorated with their own tombeau? JWR