Trekking through the bitter cold, devoted concert-goers made their way to the Walter Reade Theater on Sunday morning to see husband-wife piano duo Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung perform an installment of Lincoln Center’s Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts. The couple delivered a spectacular program of works by Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla, which proved to be both aurally and visually stimulating. The only problem: it seemed as if the performance – which lasted for less than an hour – was over before the audience had even had a chance to thaw.

Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Seated side by side behind the theater’s grand piano, Bax and Chung commenced the morning with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, of which the composer arranged a four-hand piano reduction in 1947. Originally a ballet, Petrushka was first performed in 1911 and tells the story of the puppet Petrushka, the main attraction of the Punch and Judy puppet theater in Russia. As the ballet unfolds, Petrushka’s story becomes one riddled with love, hate, torment, and death. And Stravinsky adeptly conveys these sentiments through complex melodic, harmonic, and textural structures in the orchestra.

However, a sense of ambivalence was established in seeing the complexity of Stravinsky’s ballet reduced to two parts – four hands; twenty fingers. On one hand, the percussive quality of the piano was ideal for capturing the sharp, staccato movements of the puppets and dancers that are central to Stravinsky’s work. But on the other, some of the ballet’s textures felt lost in the composer’s piano translation. The missing timbres of the winds, brass, and strings, for instance, seemed to restrict the overall grandiosity and character of the composition.

Still, Bax and Chung delivered a flawless, highly virtuosic rendition of Stravinsky’s arrangement. The performers looked like puppeteers themselves as their hands interwove and maneuvered up and down the keyboard with seeming ease. Their impeccable coordination and dexterity were both visually engaging and, at times, mindboggling. And their seamless transitions between the composition’s varying moods was aurally stimulating, as both effectively captured Stravinsky's eerie dissonances, ominous arpeggiations, and spine-tingling “Petrushka chords”.

Following the Stravinsky reduction, Bax and Chung took the audience on a journey to Argentina with their own arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Three Tangos. Piazzolla, an integral figure in the establishment of tango nuevo in the middle of the 20th century, fuses traditional tango dance music with jazz and classical styles, thus creating rich textures and melodies that are undeniably a treat for the ears.

Bax and Chung’s four-hand reduction of Piazzolla’s work tastefully captured the composer’s unique musical flair. On stage, the couple exchanged extended gazes and swayed together behind the keyboard. Their two sets of hands became more intertwined than ever as the performers masterfully executed demanding melodic and harmonic lines, occasionally adding improvisations with minute flourishes and sweeping glissandi, which made their rendition all the more vivacious.

Overall, despite the brevity of the performance, Bax and Chung delivered and entrancing and thought-provoking program. Following the concert, the couple shared refreshments and conversation with highly satisfied concert-goers before all bundled up and scurried back into the cold.