by JEFF WINSLOW
“What makes more noise than a concert pianist?” “Two concert pianists!” Pretty silly, I know. Especially if applied to young twin pianists Ani and Nia Sulkhanishvili, who graced the stage of the Newmark Theatre in a recital last Sunday afternoon. In the season finale for Portland Piano International, they played as one pianist, whether on two pianos or as a duet on one. There were times when I did wish for more volume, but these are not the thunder and fireworks sisters; they are the lyric and elegant sisters.
So, no, Witold Lutoslawski’s World War II re-imagining of Paganini’s famous Variations did not careen dangerously towards the apocalyptic madness I was hoping to hear, nor did the festive finale of Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole” seem to imbibe as much sangria as I would have liked.
Even what would seem to be irrepressibly joyous passages in Mozart’s duet Sonata, K. 521 barely ruffled the decorum. Indeed, this opening work was so well-behaved throughout, that I began to hunger for a broader emotional and even dynamic range, softer as well as louder. On the other hand, it was undeniably beautifully shaped and phrased, and precise without being at all metronomic. As a special treat, the primo (right-side pianist) interpolated a charming and completely appropriate cadenza of just the right length before the final reprise of the theme of the last movement. It earned a soft appreciative murmur from the audience.
Four numbers from Antonín Dvořák’s “Legends” breathed more freely, though not so freely as would have given Austro-Hungarian censors in 1881 anything to worry about from the many touches of Czech nationalism sprinkled throughout the work. The sisters also gave careful attention to the composer’s imaginative harmony and sonorities via pedaling. No matter how evenly a pair of pianists splits the duties on the keyboard, only one works the pedals. (Normally the secundo or left-side pianist, partly because the lowest tones naturally tend to sustain longest.) It requires something like telepathy by the pedaling pianist, not to mention a thorough understanding of the work, to do really well. I couldn’t say whether Ani or Nia was doing the honors (they must get tired of hearing that), but she coordinated perfectly with her sister.
Coordination weakened only slightly in Johannes Brahms’s roughly contemporaneous “Variations on a Theme of Haydn” even though the sisters decamped to separate pianos. Many pianists seem to believe this is the work of a stuffy, repressed throwback to the era of fops and periwigs, and present it more like a whirring, clicking automaton than the richly Romantic work it is. The sisters know better. They gave Brahms his full poetic due, with more wonderful attention to sonority, and much expressive modulation of tempo which again seemed coordinated by telepathy.
Felix Mendelssohn was a prolific composer, but he left only one piano duet work, known by its tempo indications “Andante and Allegro Brillante.” Maybe pianists of the time, when faced with the dizzying speed of its scales and other passage work (written with virtuoso Clara Schumann in mind), asked him not to write any more! The sisters pushed their boundaries a little; it was not always crystal clear as one expects from Mendelssohn, but it was undeniably brilliant.
Their fine sense of sonority again created many beauties in Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic Spanish rhapsody, even though it was hard to avoid calling to mind the lush and much more evocative orchestral version he completed just after the piano score. In many ways, however, the work on the program that suited the sisters’ talents best, besides the Brahms, was the unassuming “Imaginings no. 3” by multi-talented and multi-genre composer Chick Corea. The tricky, bouncy rhythms were delicate and precise, and an air of mystery and, yes, poetry wafted over it all. I trust that in future the Sulkhanishvili sisters will continue to grow their dramatic and dynamic range, but their mastery is already considerable, and made for a highly enjoyable afternoon.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist. He has no plans to go into stand-up comedy.
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