Chicago Classical Review »» 176 keys to a successful partnership with pianists Bax & Chung

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Pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung performed on Saturday night at PianoForte, an event presented by the North Shore Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival concert proved that four hands can be better than two on Saturday night, at least when those hands belong to husband-and-wife piano duo Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung.

Full-fledged solo concert pianists, Bax and Chung have demonstrated how well they match, both on and off the piano bench. The duo presented a concert of French music for piano for four hands or for two pianos. Held at the PianoForte studio in the South Loop, the artists had the privilege of playing two magnificent velvet-toned Fazilis.

Bax and Chung were remarkably synchronized from the start, both rhythmically and interpretively. Their intimate connection was particularly apparent in the pieces for piano four hands. In Debussy’s Menuet movement Petite Suite for piano four hands (1889), they tenderly leaned over each other in a very subtle way, as if dancing to the beat of the music.

Debussy In white and black for two pianos (1915) have proven that they don’t have to share a bench to have an impeccable ensemble. In the first movement, there were awesome moments of perfectly aligned and complicated syncopations. As Bax noted in the post-concert Q&A, the percussive nature of the piano requires both pianists to be of the exact same opinion when it comes to performing a piece, as the slightest difference can make the sound muddy and offbeat. Fortunately for the public, this has never been a problem.

Particularly touching was the haunting second movement, dedicated to a friend of Debussy’s killed during World War I. Quasi-sacred harmonic progressions hung in the air, and a grotesque quote from “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” thundered amid a group of mechanized and discordant whispers. Written a year after France entered the war when anti-German sentiment was strong, this play served as a stark reminder of what was lost and the absurdity of war.

Poulenc’s Short Four-Hand Piano Sonata (1918), written by the composer at the age of 19, was a hormone-fueled adventure with many strategic crosses of hands, Poulenc being believed to have written the piece so that he could get closer to a student he loved. In her introduction, Chung joked that everything was fine, as she and Alessio are married.

The duo switched positions for Ravel’s transcription for piano four hands of the famous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, with Bax assuming the primo (treble) position and Chung moving to secondo. It made a nice change to hear Bax in a bigger role and witness his melodic expression and sensitivity, especially in the famous opening motif, which he played with great delicacy. Throughout, the two displayed an orchestra of color at hand, and the sensuality of the music was heightened by their intimate connection.

Orchestral demands continued, such as Ravel’s transcription for two pianos of his own choreographic poem for orchestra, The waltz (1920), put the duo to the test. In this “waltz to end all waltzes”, the duo took the audience to a sumptuous Viennese ballroom. A tremendous amount of musical information has been condensed into four hands, and at times it seemed like the two were trying to get more sound than two pianos would allow. However, the virtuosity of Chung and Bax was astounding and both musicians seemed understandably exhausted afterwards.

Fortunately, they still had some energy left to give a reminder of Astor Piazzolla’s audience fun, Libertango, which they had adapted for piano four hands, adding their own improvisations in addition to the version for piano solo. Again, the two danced as if in an intimate tango, and their interpolations were lush and indulgent.

Equally technical, sensitive and expressive, the couple still had distinct personalities – Bax more introverted and Chung more physically emotional. Chung was particularly interesting to watch, and Bax’s placid demeanor belied the technical demands of the repertoire, like a swan swimming serenely while paddling furiously under the surface of the water. These different but complementary musical personalities are clearly a crucial part of what makes the couple such a great musical team.

The next North Shore Chamber Music Festival concert is a program celebrating Astor Piazzolla’s 100th anniversary with violinist Philippe Quint on November 27. nscmf.org

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