In “A Celebration of Two Pianos” a new piano duo on the Israeli concert scene – Ariel Halevy and Misha Zartsekel – played to a full house at the Felicja Blumental Music Center (Tel Aviv) on January 21st 2016. Born in Jerusalem, Ariel Halevy began his piano studies at the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, receiving bachelor and master’s degrees from the Mannes School of Music (New York). As a soloist and recitalist he performs internationally, also leading a busy teaching life. In 2015, he recorded late Brahms piano works for the RomeoRecords label. Born in Rostov, southern Russia, Misha Zartsekel moved to Moscow at age 9. He immigrated to Israel in 2000, working with Rietta Lisokhin in Haifa as well as Prof. Itzhak Katz and Yaron Rosenthal at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. A recitalist and chamber musician, he has soloed with orchestras in Israel and abroad.
The program opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for two Harpsichords in C-major BWV 1061, the composer’s only work for two keyboards. Probably originally composed for two harpsichords from the outset, an orchestral accompaniment was added, possibly not by Bach. In the latter, the keyboard instruments play less against the orchestra, conversing more with each other, so that the two keyboards alone produce a full and satisfying musical setting. And now that we have come a safe distance from the stringency of the Authentic Early Music Movement, it is time to reconsider the performance of Bach on the piano. Halevy and Zartsekel gave a bold, clean and fresh reading of the concerto, their use of the sustaining pedal never blurring a line as they presented each motif with articulacy. Their absolute precision of timing provided a most splendid basis for the counterpoint to play out its complex game of melodic strands. Following the personal expression of the 2nd movement – Adagio ovvero Largo – in which the artists allowed themselves immerse themselves within the affect, they gave an exhilarating, dynamic and contrasted reading of the final movement – Fuga – a true celebration of the king of Baroque contrapuntal forms.
Johannes Brahms was introduced to a set of divertimenti for winds attributed to Haydn in 1870. He liked the theme of the second, the Chorale St. Antoni, a hymn sung by pilgrims on St. Anthony’s Day, copying the melody into his notebook. In 1873, he showed the two-piano version of his variations on the theme to Clara Schumann; she and Brahms gave it its first airing at a private gathering in Bonn that year. An orchestral version followed, being referred to as opus 56a, whereas the piano version is 56b, was published later. Critical of his own previous- but well-received sets of variations and those of his contemporaries, he wrote to violinist Joseph Joachim in 1856, claiming that in writing variations “we cling nervously to the melody…we don’t handle it freely” and “we merely overload it”. Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” were a turning point on that score. They are also a mammoth undertaking on the part of the pianists. Halevy and Zartsekel gave a rich rendition of Brahms’ “orchestration” of the piano. Nuanced with the strong, rewarding timbres of the Romantic soundscape, the artists’ playing took the listener from lyrical, singing melodies, to moments of urgency, to the sober, haunting message of the “minore” Variation IV, to a variation of breathless garrulousness that pushes bar-lines aside as it forges its way ahead (Variation V), to chordal textures, to the lovingly-treated and gently hesitating personal utterances of the Siciliano ((Variation VII), to the illusive sleight-of-hand of the last variation, ending with the wink of an eye. Their committed playing of the massive Finale endorsed Brahms’ aim to extend the boundaries of the variation form.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.1 opus 5, the “Fantasie-Tableaux”, inspired by a stay in the Russian countryside, was the composer’s first attempt at writing program music. It was written when the composer was just 20 years old. The work, however, shows a mature approach to the technical, tonal and interpretive resources of the two-piano medium. Each movement is headed by a quotation from one of four poets. Halevy and Zartsekel created each of the tableaus insightfully, lending magic and luxuriant colour to the layering of the opening Barcarolle, with its underlying hint of sadness, then evoking an intense description of night “La nuit…l’amour” (Night…Love), the cascading scales and copious trills forming the material of fantasy. A quote from Lord Byron’s poem “Parisina” introduces “La nuit”:
“It is the hour from when the boughs
The nightingale’s high note is heard;
It is the hour – when lovers’ vows
Seem sweet in every whisper’d word;
And gentle winds and waters near,
Make music to the lonely ear…”
“Les larmes” (Tears) began with an almost visual picture of single teardrops falling onto a bare soundscape; then, as the textures fill out, the artists take the listener into the inner regions of the senses, the “sculpted” tears ever returning, laden with longing. Sweeping away the melancholy state of mind of the previous movements, “Pâques” (Easter) is an exuberant and extroverted depiction of bells ringing out on Easter morning, the characteristic “noise” and repetitiveness of bells present in a myriad of astounding textures. Beyond the technical versatility and strength required in playing the “Fantasie-Tableaux”, this performance was clearly the result of deep enquiry into the fine details and meaning of this masterpiece.
Ending on a more light-hearted note, the artists performed W.A.Mozart’s Sonata in D-major for Two Pianos K.448, the composer’s only work for two pianos. This was not one of the composer’s duets played by him and his sister; indeed, the first piano part was played by Josepha von Auernhammer, a young woman who, it seems, had designs on the still single Mozart in 1781. In this work, constituting Mozart at his most galant, Halevy and Zartsekel brought the spirit of the Viennese salon and its fine entertainment to the audience at the Blumental Center, with Mozart’s graceful, songful music, its elegance and exhilarating virtuosity amounting to a true masterwork. In playing that was solid, positive and well contrasted, the opening movement breathed Mozart’s joy and positive outlook, also his modesty, as the two artists listened, matched and supported each other, with the Andante (2nd movement) setting the listener’s heart afloat with its charm and tender gestures, the artists’ phrases finely chiselled. With the engaging energy of the Allegro molto, the artists sent the audience home with a sense of well-being in which Mozart’s playful, refreshingly naïve and carefree agenda was alive with the joy of the piano duo.
A duo for only a year, Misha Zartsekel and Ariel Halevy share the music with warm resonance, clarity, precision and well balanced sonorities, with a strong sense of cooperation and of sharing.
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