Musical kindred spirits, conversing at the keyboard

Pianist Jonathan Biss. Pianist Jonathan Biss. (Julian Edelstein)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 9, 2010

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Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss teamed up on Sunday for an unusual duo piano recital, presented by the Celebrity Series. Both are marvelous pianists as well as musical kindred spirits, despite being separated by a generation. Sunday afternoon was not the transcendent keyboard summit some may have hoped for, but these players gave vivid and engaging accounts of music by Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Debussy.

Duo piano recitals of this sort are a relatively modern creation, since much of the repertoire for two pianists was not written for the concert hall but for the living room, or in some cases for the rehearsal space, as in the two-piano reduction of Stravinsky’s ballet “Agon’’ offered Sunday. Translation is almost never seamless.

Schubert’s “Lebensstürme’’ in A minor, the opening work, featured some sparkling runs from Biss as well as Goode’s wise, grounding presence in the bass, but there was still a slightly unsettled quality, a bit more than the title (“Storms of Life’’) suggests, as if the two were still warming to the idea of sharing the keyboard. They were on two separate pianos for the rest of the formal program, which included a mellifluous, organically paced account of Schumann’s Six Studies in Canon Form, originally written for the rare pedal piano of Schumann’s day, here in the arrangement by Debussy.

In the department of glorious clangor, nothing could match the four-hands arrangement of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,’’ rendered Sunday not on one piano but two. Separate keyboards was a good idea, and not just for the players’ comfort; the veneer of cozy parlor-room domesticity always seems ill-fitting for this shattering string quartet creation, and in this case the composer’s dense web of counterpoint benefited from the space separating the two thundering Steinways.

You can’t blame pianists for wanting to get their fingers around the “Grosse Fuge,’’ one of the most visionary pieces of music created in the 19th century, but to these ears the piano version, with its limited range of sonority, always sounds like a pale imitation of the quartet version, whose demonic expressive intensity and uncanny pathos make even a routine performance memorable. Biss and Goode labored valiantly and succeeded at bringing across at least the percussively rhythmic dimensions of this piece, as well as some measure of its cosmic fury.

The two-piano version of Stravinsky’s “Agon’’ likewise squeezes an entire orchestra onto a similarly small canvas, but it was still a rare and welcome opportunity to hear this major Stravinsky ballet in the intimacy of Jordan Hall. Debussy’s wartime masterpiece, “En Blanc et Noir,’’ drew out some of the most supple, imaginative, and viscerally charged playing of the concert. The afternoon’s encore was perfectly chosen: Schumann’s tender “Abendlied,’’ disclosed with lyrical refinement and glowing tonal warmth, drifting off the stage as a gift.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Presented by

Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall

(Sunday afternoon)