Aebersold and Neiweem Perform with Astounding Unanimity at Chicago Duo-Piano Festival

Claire Aebersold & Ralph NeiweemIt’s hard to write a review when you’re so entranced by a performance that you can barely remember to put pen to paper. That’s exactly what happened to me at Friday night’s recital by the dynamic piano duo of Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem at Nichols Concert Hall. The performance heralded the beginning of the 25th annual Chicago Duo-Piano Festival hosted by the Music Institute of Chicago. Aebersold and Neiweem founded the week-long celebration during which pianists of all ages enjoy exciting guest performances in addition to participating in rehearsals, master classes, and student recitals.

Friday night’s concert featured Aebersold and Neiweem performing duets on a single keyboard. They functioned like an entity with one brain and four hands, which is not surprising given that they’ve been married for 40 years and have performed together for 32. The duo played with astounding unanimity of tone color and phrasing on a program which explored the evolution of tonality from the decorous music of Schubert’s Variations on an Original Theme in B-Flat Major through the primeval splendor of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The performance opened with Franz Schubert’s afore-mentioned Variations. The duo’s playful presentation of the work was as sweet, airy, and delicious as strawberry mousse.

The duo stepped farther away from the traditional romanticism of Schuber t with Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite. Completed in 1889 shortly after Debussy had completed his education at the Paris Conservatoire, the four-movement piece shows early hallmarks of the composer’s deliciously dissonant harmonies. Aebersold and Neiweem presented a lovely interpretation of the Menuet movement as they brought clarity to the complex harmonies superimposed on the traditional 17th-century dance.

The next selection, Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole (1907), made a hard left turn from traditional classical music by incorporating the harmonies and rhythms of Spain. Before performing the work, Neiweem told the audience that Ravel had originally composed the third movement for piano duet before writing the other three movements for orchestra. Ravel then reduced the orchestral version for piano so that it could be performed either on two keyboards or as a four-hand work. Aebersold and Neiweem embarked on a sinuous exploration of the exotic dark colors in the “Prélude à la nuit” and a passionate romp through the “Malagueña’s” dance rhythms. As the duo navigated the intricate counterpoint of the “Habanera”, they had to reach across each other’s arms and hands with increasing frequency. The raucous rhythms of the “Feria” foreshadowed the primeval furor of what would soon come in the second half of the recital.

The duo returned after intermission for Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), a composition with tonalities and rhythms so revolutionary that incited riots at its premiere as a ballet in 1913. Neiweem explained to the audience that prior to the infamous premiere, the work was first performed in public as a duo piano version by Stravinsky and Debussy (side note – I now know exactly to what moment I’d travel if I had a time machine). Neiweem also shared that he and Aebersold had to cross arms with each other frequently throughout the piece and, “Despite our aching backs, we’re having a lovely time doing this.”

Watching Aebersold and Neiweem perform this piece did seem, appropriately enough, like an intricate pas de deux. In addition to the performers entwining their arms throughout the piece, there were several points where Aebersold literally played with her hands beneath Neiweem’s. The most incredible of these was at the end of the “Dance of the Earth”, during which one fellow concertgoer turned to me and mouthed, “Oh my God.”

Beyond the visual spectacle of Aebersold and Neiweem’s arm gymnastics, the most satisfying aspect of the pas de deux was the clarity of melodic line and breathtaking rubato. Two pianos obviously do not have the palette of colors found in an orchestra. The duo took advantage of the pared-down instrumentation to bring out harmonies and counterpoint which often get buried in a 100-person ensemble. Moreover, they were able to play with the ebb and flow of rubato in a way which would be impossible with a massive group of musicians. It also must be mentioned that despite the work’s inherent percussive nature, the duo performed with a lovely, resonant tone. Neiweem’s robust lower register provided a powerful foundation for Aebersold’s soaring, bell-like soprano.

This extraordinary recital must have certainly been inspirational for the Duo-Piano Festival participants sitting in the audience. There will be more exciting performances at Nichols Concert Hall later this week including a Faculty Extravaganza on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 7:30 PM and a performance by the extraordinary husband and wife piano duo Olga Sherbakova and Yuri Sherbakov on Friday, July 19 at 7:30 PM. Tickets for these events are $30 for adults; $20 for seniors; $10 for students; and free of charge for Music Institute students, faculty, and staff. For more information, please visit musicinst.org.

Photo courtesy of the Music Institute of Chicago

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