I recently attended a concert at the Baku Philharmonic hall that was as bizarre as it was entertaining. As part of the orchestral music festival marking the 125th anniversary the birth of Azerbaijan’s national composer Uzeir Gadzhibekov, the organisers invited an ensemble of four concert pianists to perform works by Wagner, Czerny, Debussy and Ravel. In nearly forty years of concert going, I have never seen such as sight nor heard such renditions.
The four Steinway concert grand pianos filled the stage of the concert hall and were an overwhelming spectacle in themselves. Full marks to the organisers for collecting together four musical mammoths of such outstanding quality and to the poor piano tuner had to get them to sound like a single instrument.
The four musicians were all soloists in their own right; Alexander Gindin (Russia), Sergey Kudryakov (Russia), David Lively (USA) and Jeroen van Veen (Holland). The ensemble was conducted by Artem Markin (Russia).
Although three of the works were conducted by Markin, his role seemed more to do with keeping the ensemble together rather than leading them in any meaningful sense. The real leader was Gindin, a formidable interpreter of grand romantic music and a graduate of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He came to prominence in the 1990’s after winning both the prestigious Tchaikovsky and Queen Elisabeth piano competitions.
The ensemble threw themselves straight into the musical deep-end with a rendition of the Overture to Wagner’s opera Tannhauser in an arrangement by C. Burchardi. How you might ask can you possibly play Wagner without brass or string instruments? How can the plaintive call of Tannhauser’s leitmotif be translated into the percussive sound of a piano let alone the crashing waves of emotion that are associated with the master of German opera? The answer of course is that they could not. Even with the combined might of four Steinway Ds, the sound than was emitted was more like several glass chandelieirs being shaken than a mighty thunderstorm.
The concertante for four pianos in C Major by Carl Czerny was a different matter. Czerny was a child prodigy and at ten, a pupil of Beethoven and teacher of Liszt. He was a prolific composer including some works for eight pianos [yes eight], being played by four hands each! Clearly this man knew his stuff and it showed. The themes and variations of the piece were tossed like a handball from musician to musician, each showering notes over the audience like a waterfall of sound. Gindin led the piece, this time without the help of conductor Markin, ably assisted by David Lively an American pianist of remarkable technical skill who played with delicate grace.
After the interval the ensemble began with Les Jeux by Claude Debussy in an arrangement by Maarten Bon, a Dutch composer who died in 2003. To my ear, this piece was the most successful of the evening though full of strange chords and mild dissonance, akin to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that was composed around the same time. Images of notes as water droplets or fragments of ice came to mind, as once again the audience was held captive by shimmering notes and technical excellence.
The grand finale was the Bolero by Ravel. The piece begins with a twisting, slightly tortured theme that builds and builds to a crescendo and final release of tension. This arrangement by French composer Jacques Drillon emphasised the almost hypnotic nature of the theme, with seemingly endless repetitions, each one slightly louder and more passionate. Again, Gindin took the lead, looking more and more tortured each time he repeated the theme. Like Les Jeux, Bolero was originally conceived as ballet music and both express primal emotions.
While the rendition was certainly full of power and emotional charge, it lacked the orchestral colour that marks the better-known version. All the pianists could do was play the theme progressively louder and with more emotion. That in a nutshell was the problem with the concert as a whole. Where it succeeded was where the composer or arranger used his musical forces sparingly and emphasised the bright, percussive sound that is the hallmark of a piano. At the end of the day, more is not necessarily better but overall, the evening was remarkable and one I for one would not have wanted to miss it.