Quick, name the greatest concert you've ever attended. Now, think of the greatest concert you wished you could have seen. Last May, more than 2,000 lucky ticket holders were on hand for a rare performance of Schubert's piano duets with two world-class performers, James Levine and Evgeny Kissin. With the release of this new, live recording, you can be a witness to that sold-out Carnegie Hall performance too.
After hearing this remarkable disc, you have to wish performers like this would team up more often. Levine is recovering from an injury right now, and otherwise he's just too busy. As artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera for more than 30 years, he spends seven months out of the year in New York City. He's also finishing up his second season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Russian virtuoso Evgeny Kissin is very protective of his turf, limiting himself to about 40 concerts a year. The odds of getting to see him perform are minuscule. But one night in New York City--May 1, 2005--these two phenomenal artists sat facing one another, each at his own Steinway piano, to perform. This new, live release is defined by passion. Schubert's Fantasie in F minor for Piano, Four Hands, is one of the composer's most emotional works. It was intended to be played with both performers at one keyboard, but for comfort, a fuller resonance and added pedal control, Evgeny Kissin and James Levine opted for individual grand pianos. The only noticeable difference is that two instruments are, not surprisingly, a bit louder than one.
Kissin and Levine don't need to be seated side-by-side to flow in a unified performance. As virtuosos, they have the ability to feel what's working. Their sense of timing, energy and imagination makes the music shine brightly in the first movement of the Fantasie. Schubert dedicated this work to one of his students, Countess Caroline Esterhazy, with whom he was supposedly in love. He paints his unrequited love in the moods of the music, at first tender, then angry and frustrated. It's achingly beautiful and tragic at the same time.
Even though Evgeny Kissin and James Levine are used to being the center of attention, I sense they took great pleasure in sharing the limelight. Together, they create a rush for both listener and performer, as their evenly matched talents and personalities have an amazing chemistry. That's what I hear happening on this release, especially during the Allegro in A minor for Piano, Four Hands. This work is known as "Lebenssturme," or "Storms of Life." It probably reflects the composer's early life more than his last year, which is when it was written. The publisher Anton Diabelli gave the sonata its nickname, and you can certainly hear why. The bold orchestral-sounding theme is followed by a more lyrical, almost spiritual response. The forces of dark and light are battling one another.
This music is rarely heard in the concert hall because playing piano duets was a domestic form of entertainment during the 19th century. Having a piano in the parlor was a mark of middle-class status. Almost every major European composer of the time was writing duets because they were profitable. Schubert produced over 70 of them, more than any other composer, and he was the only one who used the piano-four-hands medium to develop truly great music. He had fewer opportunities than most composers to have his music performed in concert halls, so to get his music heard, he had to rely on himself and his circle of friends. With this recording Evgeny Kissin and James Levine have entered that circle. They may get the headline on this new release, but it's Franz Schubert's music that gives them the opportunity to look so good.