Fourtissimo: Soyeon Lee, Ran Dank, Roman Rabinovich, and Vassilis Varvaresos in Review

Fourtissimo:  Soyeon Lee, Ran Dank, Roman Rabinovich, and Vassilis Varvaresos, pianos
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall: New York, NY
October 8, 2010

Fourtissimo – Photo Credit: Lisa Mazzucco

Rarely has the literature for multiple pianos attracted four such exceptionally fine piano soloists as have come together in the dynamic new group Fourtissimo.  Having noted the “immense talent” of Young Concert Artists International Auditions Winner, Ran Dank, in 2009 (New York Concert Review, Vol. 16, No. 1), I was excited enough to read that he would be teaming up with rising star, Roman Rabinovich, about whom I wrote glowingly when he performed at the Salle Cortot in Paris in 2007 (Vol 14, No. 3); it thus seems a surfeit of riches to add the superb pianist (and 2010 Naumburg winner) Soyeon Lee and the outstanding Vassilis Varvaresos (also a winner of YCA, among other distinctions). Would the whole be greater than the sum of these parts? The answer is yes, thanks to the festive spirit, camaraderie, and constant variety in their program.

The music itself, including solos, duos, and works for two pianos and eight hands, was full of thrills, and the world premiere of “The Quadruple Carmen Fantasy and Fugue” by young composer Noam Sivan was chief among them.  Its witty and brilliant treatment of the Carmen themes exploited all four pianists’ skills extensively, with none of the dead wood or excessive doubling that plague the two-piano repertoire. Jazz and popular elements reinvigorated the well-known themes (as did the addition of tambourine at one point).

Four selections from Ligeti Etudes (for solo piano) alternated with the ensemble works, offering a much-needed textural relief, a sonic “palate cleanser,” and a solo virtuoso showcase for each pianist. It was a joy to hear these fascinating Etudes singly, rather than in rapid succession. Mr. Varvaresos first offered No. 9, “Vertige,” in a rendition so dizzying that one needed to clutch one’s seat.

Liszt’s two-piano transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (first movement) followed, played by Ran Dank and Soyeon Lee. In keeping with the ensemble’s professed inspiration, the “boldness and creativity of the Golden Age “ of pianism, it was a refreshing choice, played with precision and energy. Ligeti’s Etude No. 4 (“Fanfares”) was then given marvelous vibrancy by Mr. Rabinovich, who was joined afterwards by Mr. Varvaresos to close the first half with Ravel’s La Valse. La Valse was given a muscular, if somewhat overly goal-oriented, performance. The surges and swoons seemed too often only hastily suggested (as well as some of the coruscating passage-work), but what may have been lacking in sensual thrills was found in athletic vigor, with Mr. Varvaresos taking an extroverted lead.

All four pianists joined forces again for the New York premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Daydream and Nightmare (2005). A short but fascinating piece, it showed Mr. Liebermann’s characteristic artistry from its slow meditative opening to its tumultuous close.

The Ligeti Etude series continued with No. 6 (“Autumn in Warsaw”) sensitively played by Ms. Lee, followed by Mendelssohn’s own arrangement for piano of the final movement (Presto) of his Octet Op. 20, played with fleet-fingered control by Mr. Dank and Mr. Varvaresos. Mr. Dank remained onstage for Ligeti’s Etude No. 1 (“Desordre”), expertly handled (even if I would have preferred even more pronounced accentuation of its jagged rhythms). Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini, a surefire two-piano standard, was then winningly played by Ms. Lee and Mr. Rabinovich. Even more sense of diabolical play will put it “over the top,” but each successive performance will undoubtedly encourage that. Grainger’s “Fantasy on Porgy and Bess”  (after Gershwin), another two-piano favorite, closed with the “Fourtissimo” treatment, with four hands alternating tag-team-style for much of it, but ending with a souped up eight–hand finale. It was an apt finale to an evening full of fun.

An improvisatory encore including themes from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and “Mrs. Robinson” (among others) brought the house down.