By All “Rites,” Another Triumph at Farley’s House of Pianos

By All “Rites,” Another Triumph at Farley’s House of Pianos
Diana Shapiro and Stanislava Varshavski

Yes, I’m counting the days until the opening of the Madison Symphony season, followed quickly by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Madison Opera, and all the other great things that happen in the major venues.

But I have to admit that lately I’m becoming increasingly enamored of small venues. A couple of weeks ago it was the final two programs of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival at “the barn,” and now twice in just over a month, events offered as part of the “Salon Piano Series” at Farley’s House of Pianos.

Of course, you’re not going to hear orchestras in such venues. But what you are going to get is that up close and personal intimacy that usually has a major impact on the listening experience itself. Add in the post-concert receptions at Farley’s with the opportunity to ask the musicians questions, and meet some of your fellow audience members, and we’re talking about an event that should always have a waiting list.

Saturday night marked the return of the Varshavski-Shapiro piano duo, two ladies well known to many in Madison, as they were based here from 2008-11 while they completed doctoral work at UW-Madison. But they have been together since 1998, during their days at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and have long sported an international reputation.

In selections from Mozart, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, a hundred or so lucky listeners were treated to four-hand arrangements on alternating pianos, an 1877 Steinway and a 1950 Steinway. Opening on the former instrument, the ladies offered a late minor masterpiece of Schubert’s “Lebenssturme.” The work afforded us the first chance to hear their incredibly matched touch, as they exchanged rapid ripples that ran down the keyboard.

The bulk of the first half was devoted to a work by the 21-year old Rachmaninoff, a suite of “Six Pieces.” Having four hands at one piano gave us that added richness of extra middle register, with the still embryonic style of the post-Romantic master. If his hallmark harmonic richness was yet to be found in this work, it nevertheless bespoke of its creator’s virtuosity, who was still more famous as a pianist than composer when he wrote it. Not surprisingly, Varshavski and Shapiro tossed it all off with aplomb. (After all, as Norman Gilliland had pointed out in his typically droll and insightful pre-concert lecture, this was music meant to sell—to “amateurs!”).

The second half opened with one of the great examples of four-hand writing, the K. 381 Sonata of Mozart, who wrote a fair amount for the combination. Only Mozart could, in the space of about a minute in such a work, put us in mind of some opera or symphony; his miracles are indeed timeless, and come in all sizes.

If one needed a “draw” for the event (other than to soak up great artistry), it was to hear Varshavski and Shapiro’s own four-hand arrangement of Stravinsky’s landmark ballet, The Rite of Spring, which was premiered a century ago this year. The opening melody inevitably brought the aural memory of that painfully high bassoon solo, followed by the conglomeration of woodwind harmonies. But in short order, Varshavski and Shapiro turned the 1950 Steinway into an orchestra all its own—glassy, brittle, even brutal when required—and their own choreography of hand crossings and page turnings were visual enough in their own right.

Mostly though, the audience seemed mesmerized as one, and with eyes open or closed there was abundant material to flash though one’s mind, whether it had to do with the original primeval tale of virgin sacrifice or not. This performance was edge-of-your-seat stuff, and the duo gave us a scintillating encore that might have been the most suitable thing to cap off their Rite: A sparks-inducing “Russian Dance” from Stravinsky’s previous ballet, Petrouchka.