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Boston Meets Vienna in Evening of Transcriptions

“Music of Three Viennas” Recital Features Music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and Webern

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

David Deveau, piano

Kresge Auditorium

Feb. 22, 8 p.m.

Have you ever wondered how entertaining the chamber music experience can be? You might have been surprised about last Saturday’s Faculty Concert in Kresge, featuring pianist and MIT senior lecturer David Deveau. The theme, “Music of the Three Viennas,” works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and Webern, and even the image of Beethoven’s death mask on posters told us we were in for a grave and sober concert.

And yet the concert was far from being an overpowering experience. Instead, it came out as a light-hearted show: brilliant, exuberant, and even funny.

How entertaining can Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto be? Wait until you hear the transcription for piano and string quintet. It is true that the transcription, which has surfaced recently (1995), is surrounded by stark controversy. Whether the piano part was intended to be more ornamented or not, we might never know, yet the piece is incredibly different from the standard version of the concerto.

To contrast the orchestra’s reduction to five measly strings, the piano part -- believe it or not -- has been dressed up with a wild array of extra notes, scales, arpeggios, and trills, all of which are hard to get used to. Take for example the beginning of the development in the first movement. The piano utters the supreme question of the theme: four F’s in a row. The pause that follows is crucial; it is a moment when time freezes, bewildered. Yet the transcription doesn’t offer this moment. Instead, fortissimo octaves in the left hand quickly answer, dissipating the mystery.

However, leaving aside all the technicalities of the score, the performance was admirable. A brilliant Deveau led the unusual piano sextet performing the Beethoven work with strong concern for rhythm and flow. The first movement was played fast and the third even faster than usual, highlighting Deveau’s superb touch and his sparkling piano technique.

The strings, modest in sonority (given the score), stood out through liveliness and good musical direction. Yet, we all know that the poor cello will never be able to replace the tumult of the timpani and double basses. Certainly, Kresge Auditorium is too big a hall for this intimate arrangement of the concerto, and that’s why the overall impression is a bit unyielding. Perhaps, if played in Killian Hall, it might have been the ultimate Beethoven chamber music experience.

Beethoven big, but Brahms bigger

Beethoven might have enjoyed large sonorities, but Brahms, even more so, made a career using them. Then, it’s natural to wonder what happens with Brahms’ First Piano Concerto when you take out the orchestra part and add bits of it on top of the piano part. You guessed it: another transcription, this time arranged for piano duet by the composer himself.

Cringing could be a normal reaction, even if the arrangement is Brahms’ own. No, it’s not because Brahms did a poor job in arranging his own piece. And no, it’s not because of the poor Steinway & Sons piano on stage, which sounded hoarse and unable to put out as much power as the music required. And certainly, the interpretation of Deveau and his student Jonathan Lee G, whose real-time acrobatics in switching hands and playing tens of keys at the same time was impressive and brilliant. It is simply that the piece was not meant to be a piano duet. Its energies and potentials, and its olympian architecture, are only suited for the grand orchestra.

Nevertheless, hearing Brahms’ concerto on a single piano is a unique experience, and again, very different than its original conception. The piece was a veritable display of heavy pianism. The sparkling scales and trills were balanced well with the more melodic sequences, especially in the second movement, with its choral-like sonority. The monumental sweeps of the third movement were engaging, yet the inability to distinguish between the solo part and the accompaniment made many passages, although very well-played, not completely fulfilling. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this piece tremendously, and I would look forward to see Deveau play this concerto in its actual orchestral setting.

20th-century works provide challenge

The program also featured two solo piano pieces from the third Vienna school: Webern’s Variations for Piano, Op. 27, and Schoenberg’s famous Piano Piece, Op. 33a. These pieces opened each half of the concert, setting a mysterious atmosphere. The atonal pieces present a challenge to both the listener and the performer, but Deveau responded with confidence, good taste, and theatrics. And there was even a touch of humor. The most notable moment was Deveau’s serious announcement before Schoenberg’s piece: “This piece is only two minutes long.”