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Stravinsky, Brahms & Piazzolla: Piano Duos

Alessio Bax (piano), Lucille Chung (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2013
Wyastone Recording Studio, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Anna Barry
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: December 2013
Total duration: 68 minutes 19 seconds

The real life marriage of two great concert pianists, Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, has led to one of the leading piano duos of their generation. To cite the UK magazine Music and Arts: 'Theirs is a marriage of wondrous colours and dextrous aplomb, subtly balanced to make a musical performance sound as one.

Stavinsky’s Petrouchka was originally arranged for four-hands by the composer as a rehearsal score for the Ballet Russes production of the same name, but in this stripped-down it brings Stravinsky’s melodic, rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness to the fore. Brahms’s sixteen Opus 39 Waltzes are an enchanting collection of Romantic miniatures that simultaneously nod to the musical lineage of the composer’s home in Vienna whilst asserting his own flair and individuality. The final four tangos by Piazzolla are a full of Argentine flair and vigour, and were arranged especially for this recording by Bax & Chung.


'Here's a husband-and-wife piano duo who make beautiful music together. In Stravinsky's duet reduction of Petrushka, Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung do not attempt to replicate orchestral dynamic levels. Instead they apply their effortless synchronicity to unlocking the music's pianistic potential, aiming for textural clarity and colouristic variety as they shape the catchy melodies with maximum lilt and characterful accentuation … superb annotations and engineering make the Bax & Chung Piano Duo debut CD all the more auspicious' (Gramophone)

'Winner of the 2000 Leeds Piano Competition, Alessio Bax, joins with his wife, Lucille Chung, in their award winning piano duo. Technically superb and perfectly balanced, they revel in the brilliant virtuosity of Piazzolla’s seductive tangos, and give loving performances of the Brahms waltzes. Equally enjoyable in Stravinsky’s four-hand version made for rehearsing the ballet, Petrouchka, but the work falls far short of the excitement generated in his Three Movements extracted for solo piano. The sound is a bit ‘pingy’ in the upper octaves' (Yorkshire Post)
A succession of large orchestral scores produced at the end of Igor Stravinsky’s apprenticeship to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov solidified the young composer’s reputation as a master of orchestral color. The Faun and the Shepherdess (1906) and Symphony in E flat (1907) appeared together on a program in 1908 that attracted Stravinsky’s first press notice: Stolichnaya pochta declared that Stravinsky’s ‘lively cheerfulness of musical thinking … distinguishes him to his advantage from many of the newest composers’. The harmonic language and colorful orchestration of the Scherzo fantastique (1907–08) betrayed Rimsky-Korsakov’s influence as much as they proclaimed Stravinsky’s own mature craftsmanship. Most triumphantly, Stravinsky’s pithily thrilling Fireworks (1908) heralded the emergence of a significant new voice.

These successes caught the attention of numerous among the Russian culturati, including the art critic and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to provide two orchestrations for the choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s Chopiniana, to be presented as part of the Ballets Russes’s 1909 Paris season (under the title Les Sylphides). Two further commissions quickly followed, from Aleksandr Ziloti, for orchestrations of works by Mussorgsky and Beethoven; Stravinsky completed the first, but the second was derailed by a consequential telegram from Diaghilev. The next three scores Stravinsky produced would forever alter the course of Western music.

Parisian audiences had criticized the 1909 Ballets Russes season for lacking musical interest to match its outstanding dance and design. Taking the criticism to heart, Diaghilev responded with a series of new commissions. The first of these, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, premiered on 25 June 1910 at the Paris Opéra. The Nouvelle Revue Française declared The Firebird ‘the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium we have ever imagined between sounds, movements and forms.’ The score delivered as expected on orchestral invention (its dazzling sonorities utterly bewildered both dancers and musicians in rehearsal) and made the 28-year-old Stravinsky—theretofore unknown to Western audiences—into an overnight sensation.

Far from provincial St. Petersburg, Stravinsky became the toast of the Parisian elite—feted by Debussy, Ravel, and Satie, as well as the likes of Proust, Claudel, and Sarah Bernhardt—and opted to stay in the west. In September 1910, with his wife expecting the couple’s third child, Stravinsky moved his family to Lausanne. He began discussing a scenario for a new ballet on a prehistoric subject with the painter and designer Nikolay Roerich, which would be realized in 1913 as Le Sacre du Printemps (‘The Rite of Spring’), arguably the single most notorious work of the 20th century; in the meantime, however, he had busied himself with a new score:

Before tackling the Sacre du Printemps, which would be a long and difficult task, I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part—a sort of Konzertstück. In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet-blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet. Having finished this bizarre piece, I struggled while walking beside Lake Geneva, to find a title which would express in a word the character of my music and consequently the personality of this creature.
One day I leapt for joy. I had indeed found my title—Petroushka, the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries. (Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography)

On a visit to Stravinsky in Lausanne, Diaghilev heartily encouraged the development of Le Sacre. But upon hearing these recent sketches played at the piano, Diaghilev, Stravinsky writes, ‘was so much pleased with it that he would not leave it alone and began persuading me to develop the theme of the puppet’s suffering and make it into a whole ballet.’

Pétrouchka premiered on 13 June 1911, at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet with Pierre Monteux conducting, choreographed by Fokine, with designs by Alexandre Benois, and featuring Vaclav Nizhinsky in the title role. The premiere matched (indeed, among the musical community, exceeded) the success of The Firebird. Stravinsky’s exhilarating score impressed audiences with its freshness and breadth of musical ideas, ranging from Russian folk tunes to the sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic techniques that would place it, alongside Le Sacre, among the 20th century’s most influential works. Diaghilev toured the production internationally in 1913 and subsequent seasons; The Times reported on Pétrouchka’s London premiere: ‘The whole thing is refreshingly new and refreshingly Russian, more Russian, in fact, than any ballet we have seen … The employment of Russian folk music in the scene in the fair is also most refreshing, and the way in which persistent rhythms bring out the character and movement of the crowd is something quite new.’

The ballet comprises four tableaux. The first opens at the Shrove-tide fair: cacophonous tremolo figures (set, in the orchestral score, in the clarinets and horns) raise the curtain on the bustling scene; initial melodic fragments evoke the street vendors’ cries. Vivid episodes follow, conjuring street dancers and organ-grinders, and marked by breathtaking pandiatonicism and unexpected metric shifts.

The magician plays an enigmatic flute cadenza. In a letter to Stravinsky, Debussy praised the ‘sonorous magic’ of this cadenza and the chimerical music that follows, in which the three puppets—Pétrouchka, the Ballerina, and the Moor—come to life ‘by a spell of which … you seem to be the sole inventor.’ The first tableau concludes with the familiar and irresistible Russian dance.

The second tableau, set in Pétrouchka’s cell, introduces the score’s signature moment: two simultaneously ascending major triad arpeggios, separated by a tritone. This recurring harmonic device—emblematic of the ballet’s anti-hero, and thereafter famously known as the Pétrouchka chord—bears strange expressive power. Voiced, in the orchestral score, by two clarinets, it seems at once to capture the humor, pathos, mischief, poignancy, defiance, loneliness, and self-loathing that define the title character. Stravinsky moreover described this bitonal motto as Pétrouchka’s ‘insult to the public.’

Now endowed with human feelings, Pétrouchka falls in love with the Ballerina, but descends into a frenzy of despair when his vulgar antics frighten her away. The third tableau follows the Ballerina to the Moor’s cell, where the brutish Moor dances clumsily to an exotic folk-like tune. The Ballerina joins the Moor in a waltz, scored sardonically for flute, cornet, and bassoon, and brimming with wry sentimentality. A jealous Pétrouchka appears; his losing quarrel with the Moor (as the Ballerina faints) closes the scene, and the music returns to the Shrove-tide fair and the radiant sonority of the ballet’s opening. The final tableau mirrors the first in its episodic narrative and continued use of folk material: the soaring melody in the Dance of the nursemaids, for instance, comes from the Russian folk song ‘Ia vechor moloda.’

Moments later, the folk tune ‘Akh vy sieni, moi sieni’ appears, piqued by the tritone harmony that colors the Pétrouchka chord. The Pétrouchka chord resurfaces and disintegrates as the Moor strikes down and kills Pétrouchka near the ballet’s end. In the work’s closing measures, as the magician has gathered the puppet corpse, the motif reappears, as defiantly as ever—set fortississimo in the trumpets—as Pétrouchka’s ghost thumbs his nose at the magician and, indeed, at us.

For all of the score’s orchestral splendor, Stravinsky’s four-hand piano transcription of Pétrouchka (initially prepared for rehearsal purposes) remains remarkably effective. Much as losing one sense may sharpen another, hearing the work in this version, without the benefit of its kaleidoscopic orchestration, brings into focus Stravinsky’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic inventiveness, highlighting just how vast is his arsenal of compositional techniques. While it has become one of the 20th century’s most iconic and beloved works, Pétrouchka likewise retains an insuppressible freshness, honored anew with each hearing. To encounter it in this guise—strictly speaking, a blueprint, but in fact an enchanting creation in its own right—only attunes us more deeply to Stravinsky’s ingenuity.

Though seeming, on first listen, a naïve assemblage of charming miniatures, Brahms’s Opus 39 Waltzes in fact turn an incisive lens on the Romantic master’s musical identity. Composed in 1865 and published the following year with a dedication to the critic and Brahms intimate Eduard Hanslick (a two-hand version was subsequently published in 1867), the set celebrates a form representative of the musical heritage of Vienna, where Brahms had recently taken up residence. The waltz moreover was a form specifically associated with Schubert, various of whose ländler Brahms had begun editing and arranging for both two-hand and four-hand piano. But the Opus 39 Waltzes are Brahms through and through. As with much of his oeuvre, these Waltzes nod fundamentally to tradition while, Janus-like, asserting his High Romantic individuality.

Brahms was an excellent pianist, and his piano writing throughout his life betrays that instrument’s deep personal resonance, from the declamatory Opus 1 Sonata (1853) to the autumnal intermezzi of Opp 116–119 composed in his final years. His substantial catalogue of four-hand music, too—in addition to these Waltzes, the Variations on a theme by Schumann (1861); the Liebeslieder Waltzes and Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes (1874–75); the Hungarian Dances, Books 1–2 (1868) and 3–4 (1880); and miscellaneous arrangements of other works—captures a duality characteristic of Brahms’s language. The medium itself, placing two pianists in such close proximity, reflects the intimacy of Brahms’s most deeply felt music. (Brahms would play much of this music alongside Clara Schumann, his mentor’s widow and for whom he harbored a complicated affection.) Equally so, two pianists’ access to the full range of the keyboard in one blow allows for sonic grandeur evocative of Brahms’s symphonic writing. Charming miniatures the Opus 39 Waltzes may seem, but they are given voice with startling power.

Within the straightforward waltz genre, Brahms deftly manages to create music of great expressive depth. Their surface charm masks exquisite harmonic nuance that foreshadows the late intermezzi. Brahms’s sensitivity to key relationships lends the sequence of waltzes a satisfying narrative quality: consecutive waltzes are, through most of the set, harmonically separated by thirds or fifths. Three instances of separation by parallel major or minor are especially poignant: the melancholy fourth waltz, in E minor, casts the serenity of No 5, in E major, in sharp relief; No 14, in fiery G sharp minor, sets up the devastating tenderness of No 15, the famous Waltz in A flat.

The Waltz No 6, in C sharp major (the most daunting of key signatures: seven sharps!) and marked Vivace, is a work of delightful piquancy; thus prefaced, the sobriety of No 7, in C sharp minor, Poco più andante, is deadly. The subtle harmonic shades within these ephemeral movements further deepen their emotive power. The first phrase of the C sharp major waltz cadences piercingly in A sharp minor—but with the phrase propelled by the initial hemiola and set at such a rapid tempo, accented by the effervescent staccato pattern in the primo, and tumbling into the repeat, the ache of A sharp minor registers only post facto as a glancing blow.

Similarly, the harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity of No 7—a steady 3/4 lilt in the secondo buoys a more elastic meter in the primo—suggest the smiling-through-tears emotional complexity that colors much of Brahms’s solo and chamber music.

The Opus 39 Waltzes are rife with such moments, qualifying them, despite their seeming innocence, as the thoughtful utterances of a mature compositional voice—and, more than that, as quintessentially Brahms.

The Argentine composer and bandoneón prodigy Ástor Piazzolla ranks among his country’s most celebrated composers, and stands without peer in the realm of 20th-century tango. His early classical training under Alberto Ginastera (which he pursued while also performing with the leading tango bandleader Aníbal Troilo) led him, in 1954, to study in Paris with the eminent pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Weary by this time of the tango he had grown up with, and seeking a career as a composer of ‘serious’ classical music, Piazzolla kept his bandoneón hidden away. But on eventually hearing him play his tango Triunfal, Boulanger admonished her pupil, ‘This is Piazzolla! You never give it up.’

His true artistic identity validated, Piazzolla returned to Argentina, and to tango, with renewed vigor. The four seductive selections that conclude this recording—Lo que vendra, Milonga del angel, Tango No 2, and the famous Libertango—illustrate Piazzolla’s brand of nuevo tango. Reflecting his extensive musical instruction and far-ranging technical expertise, Piazzolla injected traditional tango music with modern chromaticism, elements of jazz, and even fugal technique. Though at first met with disapprovingly by tango traditionalists at home, Piazzolla’s nuevo tango thrived abroad and, eventually, in Argentina; by the 1980s, Piazzolla was regarded as tango’s savior.

The distillation of Piazzolla’s nuevo tango compositions (his bands typically included bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar, and double bass) to four-hand piano serves to focus the ear on the sophistication of his compositional language. This music is, in equal measures, nimble, breathtaking, impeccably crafted, and disarmingly sincere. That it has been embraced by musicians across cultures and irrespective of pedigree—‘classical’ or otherwise—attests to its universal appeal.

Patrick Castillo © 2013

I met one of my first piano teachers, Antonio Bacchelli, at a piano competition when I was seven years old. He was the first person who thought I had some talent. He came to this conclusion because, when confronted with a little left hand lapse in the middle of a Bach Fugue, I proceeded to completely make it up until the end of the piece in a somewhat coherent way. Bacchelli made a name for himself as the first pianist to record the complete solo works of Stravinsky. As an eight-year-old crazed fan, I bought all of his recordings. There was very little in the Stravinsky LP set that I could grasp, but for some reason the Three Movements from Pétrouchka left a mark.

I asked my father to bring me to the local music store to buy the score of the Three Movements. I vividly remember the wide-eyed response of the shop attendant. With my small baby hands, I would not have been able to play even the first chord! In any case, he was out of the version for solo piano, so he gave me the full orchestral score of the entire ballet. ‘Just look at the flute and first violin parts and it will be the same as the solo piano version,’ he said. He also handed me the score of Stravinsky’s own arrangement for piano four hands. On our way back home, my father and I stopped at a record store and bought an LP of the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado with Leslie Howard playing the demanding piano part. From that moment on, I became obsessed with Pétrouchka. In the full orchestral version I discovered the amazing story that does not exist in the Three Movements. I listened to the recording over and over that year, trying to follow a different instrument each time, and then slowly trying to understand the larger sections. I found the story of the three puppets very appealing, but I believe it was the colorful musical depiction of Russian life that won me over. I cherished every scene, every masterful orchestration detail, the organized chaos of the overlapping evening scenes and the overall massive structure that kept this series of fragments together. More importantly, every minute I spent exploring the score revealed more hidden details that took me to deeper levels of involvement in this masterpiece.

After the visit to the music store I had to shelve the four hand version, knowing that I would not be able to meet the technical demands, not to mention asking one of my eight-year-old buddies to join me. When I moved to America at age 16, I brought the score with me. I took advantage of the music library at school to listen to different versions of it and, for the first time, watched the ballet, which reignited my love for this piece.

However, I still couldn’t find anyone to play this long and demanding work with me. I had to wait until 2004, when the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival asked me to join my bride-to-be and pianist extraordinaire Lucille Chung in a two piano/piano four hands concert. The four-hand version of Pétrouchka is not something that can be put together in a few rehearsals, especially considering how good I wanted it to be. But an opportunity to really work on Pétrouchka from the ground up with a fantastic pianist was too good to pass up, so I dusted off the old score and we went to work. Those first rehearsals are forever etched in my memory. The imagery and fantasies from my childhood came rushing back, and working with Lucille on this piece brought us together closer than ever.

In the years since those first rehearsals, we have played Pétrouchka many times and we still rehearse it with the same excitement and trepidation we had on that first day. We also keep finding new amazing details, the unmistakable trait of a great score. Pétrouchka, Ballerina and Blackamoor, the three main characters of the ballet, have been our companions on winter tours across Russia and the Canadian Prairies. They have walked with us on stage as actual puppets in Guatemala, and have come to life in our imaginations in concert halls around the world. From eastern Siberia to the Yukon, audiences are touched by this beautiful and colorful story the same way an eight year old in Southern Italy was held spellbound listening to an LP.

I am always asked why I never played the Three Movements, an abridged version for piano solo. Although it is a fantastic work on its own, I feel that it is mostly a tool to showcase the pianist, and I could not live with the chopped up story. There is no morning scene to start things off, Pétrouchka does not (spoiler alert) die, nor does he reappear at the end as a frightening ghost, and the list goes on. To me it is not as satisfying as the full ballet or the full work for four hands. When Lucille and I discussed making a four hand recording for Signum, there was no question in our minds that Pétrouchka had to be the main character!

To complete the disc Lucille and I have chosen repertoire that, like Pétrouchka, has been at the center of our recent recital programs and exemplifies the special intimacy needed when sharing the same instrument. In his 16 Waltzes Op 39, and through a single dance form, Brahms manages to depict a wide range of emotions. Averaging a minute each, from the elegant Viennese waltz, through a wild Gypsy romp, to the most delicate of lullabies, the Waltzes are a testament to Brahms’ craftsmanship. This is a powerfully intimate work of subtle gestures and minuscule details.

To end the disc, in the free spirit of Argentine tango master Ástor Piazzolla, we have arranged four tangos for our own four hands, using a basic version of the works and improvising on the go. Every new performance of these tangos is different from the previous one, and to us this is a very unique and exciting experience. It is a strange but exhilarating feeling for two classically trained pianists not to know what is going to happen on stage. It requires a deep knowledge of each other’s pianism and most importantly, a lot of trust!

Alessio Bax © 2013

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