Jussen Brothers deliver stunning Stravinsky in Chicago debut

Mon Jan 22, 2024 at 9:16 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Duo-pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen performed Sunday at Symphony Center. Photo: Enrico Fischer

Chicago became the city of brotherly love on Sunday afternoon, when siblings Lucas and Arthur Jussen—a celebrated Dutch piano duo—made their Chicago debut at Symphony Center.

The brothers programmed three cornerstones of the piano duet repertoire: Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor, and the four-hands arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Added to these was a little-known 21st-century work that was written for them: Hanna Kulenty’s VAN.

The Mozart was played in an old-world, Romantic style: silken scales, lots of pedal, staccatos rarely sharp. The results were undeniably attractive, but too much of the first movement was swaddled in legato.

The opening of the second movement is marked piano. But Lucas (apparently) taking the primo part, played the melody with a thick, round tone, as if it were Brahms, wholly out of keeping with the piece’s spirit.

The finale came off best. A sprightly main theme, contrasted nicely with the minor-key B theme. The movement was marred only by its too-cute ending: sapping the tail of the last phrase with a needless diminuendo.

The Romantic tone that seemed out of place in the Mozart slow movement suited the Schubert perfectly. The Jussens also brought a wider dynamic range to the opening section, and swagger to the Allegro vivace theme in 3/8.

The Fantasy is haunted by the constant reappearance of the melancholic main theme, sometimes in strange keys following startling modulations. The Jussens effectively timed each of these returns slightly differently with lovely harmonic shading.

The sense of rage that many duos bring to the piece’s tumultuous moments was absent. But the Jussens managed to generate sufficient darkness without storminess. And in the context of the concert as a whole, this decision made sense. The four pieces felt like they were a gradual progression from tranquility to brutality.

Kulenty’s VAN didn’t give the Jussens any real expressive opportunities. It opens and closes with spooky chords, framing a long central section filled with endlessly running strings of notes, punctuated by syncopations. It served mainly as a display for the brothers’ impressive ability to keep the demanding passagework even and precise.

The Jussens’ performance of The Rite of Spring was stunning. They played it on two pianos, rather than four-hands on one, as is more common, which allowed them to generate more power in the piece’s imposing moments.

Of course, it also makes coordination more difficult in an already very tricky piece. But you wouldn’t have known it from hearing them. The moments where they both had to play the same complex rhythms were entirely seamless, as was their pedal work.

Lucas Jussen played the opening solo with an elasticity that felt free and yet natural. “The Augurs of Spring” is normally where violence rears its head. But the Jussens held much of the violence in reserve until “Games of the Rival Tribes” and “Dance of the Earth,” which were positively ferocious.

Contrasting with those sections were lyrical patches—such as the opening of “Spring Rounds” and parts of “Mystical Circles of the Young Girls”—that had a kind of songfulness and delicacy one almost never gets in orchestral performances.

The performance had only one flaw: again, the need to play coy at the end. The Jussens inserted such a large pause between the piece’s two final chords that the audience laughed out loud. Not exactly the reaction you want to the death of a young girl.

As an encore, the Jussens chose the only composer they said could follow Stravinsky: J.S. Bach. Kurtág’s arrangement of “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” was rendered with a flowing simplicity that was a welcome contrast to the preceding turmoil.

Hélène Grimaud performs 3 p.m. February 4th playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach. cso.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment