“4 on the Floor” Kicks It into High Gear

Farley’s House of Pianos takes the Salon Piano Series about as far as it can go

Several years ago four of the world’s great pianists came up with what might sound like little more than a stunt that could well be more fun for the players than for the audience: a quartet of grand pianos played simultaneously. Yet such an event took place in Guatemala, with pianists Lucille Chung, Alessio Bax, Daniel Del Pino and Alon Goldstein at the keyboards. Del Pino wanted to try it again, and when he suggested the idea to Tim and Renee Farley, they agreed to make it part of their Salon Piano Series.

This is what Del Pino told a large audience Friday night; the principal difference is that Bax was unavailable, his place being taken by Robert Plano. The Salon Piano Series has always been one performance on Sunday afternoons, but this event is on Friday and Saturday nights (after all, one does sacrifice a few seats when adding three more pianos to the set-up!).

One might raise the question of repertoire; who composes for four pianos? It seems virtually no one (save a work by Carl Czerny, and he wasn’t on the program). But apparently there is little lack of arrangements. Still, the evening began with a mere warm-up as it were, Chung and Goldstein sharing a bench to breeze through the Sonata in D Major, K. 381 by Mozart, for piano, four-hands. The unanimity of precision in the outer movements was riveting, and was a suitable appetizer for the main course.

Farley’s House of Pianos is of course world-renowned for many years for their restorations of instruments, and for this auspicious occasion we were treated to a trio of Mason and Hamelins, c.1907-1914, and a Steinway, 1950 (used in the Mozart as well). When all four of our musical prestidigitators were unleashed, they first proffered a seasonally suitable treat, the “Danse Macabre” of Saint-Saens, as arranged by Ernest Guiraud (perhaps best known for his orchestral arrangements of Carmen). From where I sat, Chung was seated at the Steinway as far from me as possible in a straight line—yet the acoustic made it almost sound as though it was coming from Goldstein’s piano, nearest me! Sonic sleight-of-hand aside, the work was a viable romp through an old favorite, clothed anew in glittering pianistic array. (In the picture above, I would have been below the right lower corner, Chung seated at the piano upper left).

Speaking of Carmen, we next heard a “Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s Carmen” by Mack Wilberg. Del Pino informed us that Wilberg is a member of piano quartet himself, and this 1994 arrangement proved the real gem of the evening. There were moments of Gershwinesque touches, a hint of honky-tonk, an “Habanera” filtered through a dreamy prism, and a dazzling “Gypsy’s Dance” segment to conclude. And as would be the case throughout the evening, the pianists switched keyboards from work to work.

The one less than riveting arrangement was the 1992 Jacques Drillon version of Ravel’s Bolero. Given that the original was intended as an exercise in orchestrating various instrumental combinations over a non-varying rhythm and harmonic scheme, it was inevitable that some degree of monotony would creep into the performance. The original version for orchestra is also essentially a 15-minute crescendo from very soft to final roar, and four pianists even of this caliber are up against recreating that kind of nuance. Still, the final few minutes were compelling, and I was glad to have heard this unique version…once.

No lack of color in the final programmed number, an 1886 Kleinmichel arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Even though most listeners encounter this and a couple of other of the composers 19 works so-named, they are originally written for piano. And what a romp our foursome enjoyed! They could barely keep themselves seated as they bounced along with this irresistible music.

And if they left us wanting more, they also provided it: first another Wilberg arrangement, this time of The Stars and Stripes Forever—with Chung popping off her bench as the final strain began, skipping around the assembled pianos and getting the audience to clap along, before getting back to her keyboard in time to join in the final patriotic riffs. One last treat awaited us, a “Galop” of Lavignac—only for added effect, the four of them intertwined themselves at just the Steinway, and had as much fun with the setting-up schtick as Victor Borge would have.

As usual, we enjoyed the best post-concert reception in Madison, with the wonderful opportunity to unhurriedly speak with the soloists and the Farleys about the evening and the wonderful instruments. The Salon Piano Series has three events left (January 22, February 26 and May 21) and if you haven’t experienced SPS yet, well make it a New Year’s resolution.

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