September 9, 2008

A Piano Recital for the Ages

By Mary Kunz Goldman

Robert Levin and his wife, Ya-Fei Chuang, played a thrilling and delightful recital Saturday night at Lippes Hall in Slee Hall, on UB's North Campus.

Other musicians should look to their program as an example of how it should be done. The music was from widely varying eras, genres and nationalities. We started out with some evocative Debussy, segued into two magical pieces by Schubert, and then it was time for the witty, virtuosic "Paganini Variations" by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. After intermission came a true tour de force, Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances," in the composer's arrangement for two pianos. Levin and Chuang make an interesting team. He's the fire. She's the ice. Charming and cute, he wore what could be called comfortable clothing. Aloof and stunning, she was laced into a skin- tight, lacey black gown.

He's not afraid to let us know, during a demanding passage, that he is throwing himself into it. She keeps her cool -- never turning toward the audience, rarely smiling. It would be nice, I recall thinking, if she looked as if she were enjoying the music more. But the best piano teams result when the players complement each other. These two do that.

They turned out some of the most sublime team playing I have heard in my life. Honest, this music was close to perfect. You felt it right away in Debussy's "En Blanc et Noir," which, title aside, offered a dizzying spectrum of colors and textures. Nothing was left to accident. Everything was articulated and polished. The washes of sound were flawlessly in sync -- no easy feat. Both pianist have an identical subtlety of touch.

Two four-hand Schubert pieces, the Allegro in A Minor, "Lebensstuerme" and Rondeau in A, simply flowed, dreamlike. This is music to make you swoon. I was too entranced to take detailed notes, but I remember thinking how seamless it was -- the transcendent quietude of certain passages in the first piece, the noble melody of the second.

For his two-piano piece, Lutoslawski chose the same Paganini melody Rachmaninoff used for his Rhapsody and also appeared to pay tribute to the Rachmaninoff piece. It was warm, witty and, if I am guessing right, diabolically difficult. Sometimes it sounded like big bells, sometimes thin as a whistle. Like the pieces that came before, the whole thing was frightfully polished and perfect. Finally, the Rachmaninoff "Symphonic Dances" -- what a treat to hear this live, let alone played this way. The page turners were on edge, but Levin and Chuang were focused and poised. At times, the two pianos sounded like an entire orchestra. It was one of the great piano performances I have ever witnessed. And that Rachmaninoff ending! What a marvel! I don't know how Chuang kept her straight face. But she did.

The pair rewarded the standing ovation with a sweet encore, "Slow Drag" by Stanley Walden. It made me think of those rags by William Bolcom. I loved it.

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Originally published by NEWS CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC.

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