Pianissimo! offers a mixed bag of multiple-piano music

Mon Sep 14, 2015 at 11:42 am

By Gerald Fisher

Pianissimo! performed Saturday night at the Merit School of Music.
Pianissimo! performed Saturday night at the Merit School of Music.

Each of the four charismatic piano virtuosi who make up the recently formed Chicago-based ensemble Pianissimo! is a highly successful performing artist in her own right. Their long and varied official Chicago debut at the Merit School of Music’s Gottlieb Hall Saturday demonstrated ample technique as well as musical integrity.

The artists are Svetlana Belsky, Elena Doubovitskaya, Irina Feoktistova and Susan Merdinger. Their program reflected their goal of offering a combination of genres to a cross section of listeners, yet the result was a mixed bag musically.

The evening began strongly with an arrangement of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture for four players on two pianos. The performance was muscular and dynamic and set the stage for the orchestral arrangements to come.

A new four-piano arrangement by Russian-born composer Margarita Zelenaia of Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons emerged somewhat scrambled in the playing. The “storm” music of the concluding section, however, was invigorating and well-rendered.

The rest of the first half of the program consisted of arrangements of works chosen for popular appeal by Gershwin, Chabrier and Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien for four pianos (arr. Amy Tan) received a sonorous if very rough and ready performance; Chabrier’s Espana tried to recreate the catchy orchestration pianistically; and the Gershwin Fantasy on The Man I Love was less jazz than pop with piano riffs.

The second half of the evening proved more interesting with two contemporary works, two standout arrangements and a Broadway medley.

James Stone’s Rip Current for Four Pianos is a short, splashy modernist work, heard in its world premiere. Ilya Levinson’s Fireball for Four Pianos features continually changing dynamics though it wasn’t always clear where the music was heading.

The clear highlight of the program was another world premiere, Zelenaia’s Fantasy for Four Pianos on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” This is not so much an arrangement as an original work, a fantasy on themes from the popular orchestral work. The piece progresses dramatically with some nice solo opportunities, and the idomatic arrangement concludes with a nod to Russian Romanticism.

Some beautiful moments were provided by Lutoslawski’s two-piano version of his Variations on a Theme of Paganini. This was performed by Susan Merdinger and Irina Feoktistova and the lighter texture of the music, which wandered further and further from the main theme, allowed one to hear some sensational solo playing by the artists.

The performers turned back to crossover appeal with a Broadway Medley by Ilya Levinson featuring themes from Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, The Phantom of the Opera and others in strictly salon renderings.

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