Even if I had had time to shape this review within twenty-four hours of hearing Saturday night's closing program of the twenty-fifth Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, it might have taken this long to get anything meaningful on paper, er, computer screen. I knew this wasn't going to be easy long before pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, and violinist and festival co-director Rose Mary Harbison took to the platform at "the barn" on Highway 19.
My encounters with Levin go back to the early 1990s in southern California, both in reviewing him and interviewing him; his reputation as an insightful artist who places impeccable technique at the disposal of the composer has only grown since then, as has his renown for his scholarship in music of Mozart and Beethoven in particular. And if one can be sentimental about such things, I first encountered Levin in the Midwest at the TCCMF of 2010. Two years later he returned with his wife, Ya-Fei Chuang, and hearing them together on that occasion, it was hard to argue for a better all-around piano duo today—or ever.
In a program titled "The Perennial Avant-Garde" the three performers spanned the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth. Two of the works were by C.P.E. Bach, and they were the only ones that could safely fall under the evening's umbrella of a title. Even though he was not performing on this occasion (or having one of his own works performed), John Harbison opened with some comments—but instead of getting our usual bushel full of droll statements and unique insights, Harbison said that he needed to say just a word about each of the pieces on the program. And that's what he did, state exactly one word. For the opening Fantasia in F-sharp minor, it was "nervous." For the Nocturne of Lili Boulanger, "serene." For a C.P.E. Bach Sonata in C minor for Keyboard and Violin "well-ordered." Ravel's "La Valse" was "futuristic," and the Schubert "Grand Duo" for Piano, four hands, "Olympian."
But it was the opening "Fantasia" that was futuristic; the second-oldest son of J.S. Bach penned it the year before he died in 1788, and it was as if he figured with so little time left he could ignore any kind of stylistic niceties (and he was already a real groundbreaker in leading the way from his father's later Baroque style toward the Classicism of Haydn and Mozart). In Levin's hands this was music not from a time capsule, but a "timeless" capsule: It didn't seem to belong to 1787 in any sense. There were ornaments that hinted at the conventions of the Baroque and Classical, but this was music expressing a neurosis all its own. As had happened a week prior at Token Creek, it made one want to explore more of this son of Bach.
Rose Mary Harbison joined Levin for a prime example of "good things come in small packages," the "Nocturne" of Lili Boulanger. In all too few minutes the early twentieth-century piece speaks of tenderness and longing—and reminds us as all of her compositions do that the world was robbed of a great talent before the lady turned twenty-five. Harbison and Levin then brought one last work from C.P.E. Bach, the C-minor Sonata. Levin's balance between the left and right hands was a wonder within the charming 1763 work.
Ya-Fei Chuang may be half of one of the great piano duos to be found, but she can captivate and dazzle all by herself. Ravel's "La Valse" was originally written for two pianists, but is more often heard in the orchestral version, and he eventually created a solo piano version. Which is where Chuang took over; in the performance of her arrangement of the solo version, one cannot say exactly what was added (Ravel's original is already a daunting technical challenge). But for all the flash and flair, what stood out was the overall sweep and perspective of this enigmatic work that bends and nearly breaks the great Viennese waltz in the abstract, written just after World War I.
The second half consisted of a single work—one mammoth, truly symphonic work for piano, four hands by Schubert, the great Sonata, D. 812, commonly referred to as the "Grand Duo." It is in four substantial movements, and like his great String Quintet and "Death and the Maiden" quartet, the composition takes us on an all-encompassing emotional journey. The Levin-Chuang team were the perfect guides, and left us with but one wish: that there are enough future Token Creek Chamber Music Festivals ahead to bring them back again.
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