At Tannery Pond: Saturday, June 13th. Misha and Cipa Dichter in works by Dvorak, Schubert, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Copland, and Liszt

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Misha Dichter and Thunderclap, photo Christian Steiner
Misha Dichter and Thunderclap, photo Christian Steiner

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)
From the Bohemian Forest, Opus 59: Five Legends, for piano, four-hands

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor, Opus 143, for piano solo (Mr. Dichter)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Concertino, Opus 94, for two pianos

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Bagatelles, Opus 126, for piano solo (Mr. Dichter)

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
El Salón México (arranged for two pianos by Leonard Bernstein)

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Concerto Pathétique, for two pianos

A heavy rainstorm did not deter the Tannery Pond audience from filling the building. The second concert, like the first, was sold out. Misha Dichter and his wife Cipa are probably the most famous duo pianists playing today, so that should come as no surprise. They played a miscellaneous program of pieces for two pianos, piano four hands, and piano solo. Apart from a certain popular vein, I couldn’t quite understand what held them together, but overall they made for a satisfying whole. Misha Dichter elicited a magnificent full sound from the Tannery Pond Yamaha concert grand, and he and Cipa displayed plenty of their renowned precision and lively rhythmic and dynamic interaction. The concert reached its peak in the two final works, Leonard Bernstein’s arrangement of Aaron Copland’s orchestral suite, El Salón México (1932-36), and an interesting Liszt rarity, his two-piano arrangement of his Concerto Pathétique.

The two solo works Mr. Dichter played were problematic. His big-scale, virtuosic approach to Schubert’s brooding A Minor Sonata did not suit this intimate music at all. His large, but unsubtle dynamics seemed more like impressive gestures imposed on the music than expression emerging from the music itself, and his phrasing showed little sensitivity to Schubert’s melodic line, harmonic progressions, or changes of mood. The overall effect was perfunctory, whatever the elegance and flair of Mr. Dichter’s playing. His rushed passagework in the finale set the seal on an entirely counter-intuitive performance. His approach to Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles was less off-putting, but it equally went beyond mere superficiality towards a real distancing, as if he wanted to keep Beethoven’s mercurial humor at arm’s length (and his audience’s sensibilities as well), clothing the music in a uniform virtuoso gloss. Hints of the appropriate nuances of phrasing and  dynamics were present, but they amounted to no more than perfunctory gestures. It was as if the great modern interpreters of these pieces—Schnabel, Brendel, Perahia—had never lived. As the earlier part of the program progressed, the rain grew heavier, adding its own watery accompaniment to Mr. Dichter’s playing. Thunder began to rumble in the distance, rapidly reaching a resounding climax—almost, but not quite, at a telling moment in the music. This was not lost on Mr. Dichter, who smiled broadly, showing his amusement most engagingly.

Misha and Cipa Dichter at Tannery Pond, photo Christian Steiner
Misha and Cipa Dichter at Tannery Pond, photo Christian Steiner

In the two piano works the Dichters excelled as a pair. The Shostakovich Concertino gleamed like a newly polished limousine and was neatly articulated, but that can’t make up for the fact that the piece shows its composer as his slickest and most cynical. Copland’s El Salón México is a much more successful example of a sophisticated composer’s work in a popular style. In this arrangement for two pianos a great deal of Copland’s orchestral color and the ebb and flow of tempo they call for have disappeared in favor of a typically Bernsteinian rhythmic drive, and this is what seemed to interest the Dichters the most in it, rather than a recreation of the effect of Copland’s vividly scored original—an impossible task in any case. Liszt’s Concerto Pathétique is one of his more substantial works, recalling some of the sensibility of Les Années de Pélerinage, and it is fascinating to hear his writing for two pianos. The Dichters went for a grand, heroic amplitude, which is entirely appropriate in this work, although it does have its intimate moments, which they did not ignore. The yearning passage towards the end was seething with romantic surf. For me the Concerto Pathétique was the most compelling part of the program.

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