Piano duo Gilbert Kalish and Christina Dahl delight Harper Hall

Lauren Nokes

Distinguished pianists Gilbert Kalish and Christina Dahl – a former piano faculty member at Lawrence – played works for two pianos and four hands in Harper Hall last Saturday, March 31. In addition to pieces by such beloved composers as Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Kalish and Dahl played works by contemporary composers György Kurtág and George Crumb.

The program began with Barber’s “Souvenirs for piano four hands,” which included movements with titles such as “Two-Step” and “Hesitation-Tango.” The piano duo gave a playful and energetic performance that drew delighted laughter from the audience. They had the special synergy of long-time collaborators; their arms and hands carefully intertwined and their bodies subtly shifted, demonstrating the effects of devoted practice and the development of cognizance for one another.

They eased into more unusual fare with works by Kurtág interspersed with his transcriptions of Bach for the piano. Kurtág’s pieces can be summed up as “pithy,” a word that Kalish used to describe them – they’re short, clever musical games that challenge the listener without ostentation.

The rapid transitions between Kurtág’s contemporary musical puzzles and Bach’s own intricate constructions emphasized the commonalities and differences between the two composers, until one could imagine that the two of them were having an intelligent and wordless discussion across space and time.

After the Kurtág works, the duo played “Other Worldly Resonances for two amplified pianos,” a piece by Crumb. Kalish described Crumb as a composer who’s not particularly radical except in his use of voice, or sound. Crumb often manipulates the timbre of instruments, creating unusual tone colors. In this piece, the pianos were amplified to create an eerie effect in which sound seemed to come from everywhere, as though we in the audience were floating high up in the air.

The sound of the pianos, especially when the pianists used extended techniques such as hitting or plucking the strings, produced a bell-like sound that recalled gamelan music. Crumb’s music certainly transported the listener to another – perhaps less material and more spiritual – world.

The evening concluded with a wonderful rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Suite No. 2 for two pianos.” Kalish and Dahl played with passion and impeccable technique, leaving their listeners – or at least this listener – satisfied; after traversing the unknown soundscapes of Kurtág and Crumb, I arrived at the end of the Rachmaninoff Suite feeling that I had experienced some exciting new wonders, but I was glad to arrive back home at last.

 

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