The final installment of the Cleveland International Piano Competition’s 2019 concert series brought forth Orion Weiss and Shai Wosner in music for two pianists. This recital took place at the Reinberger Chamber Hall situated on the lower level of Severance Hall – a venue strikingly beautiful and intimate, and regrettably only infrequently utilized as a performance space. Prior to the performance, both pianists were on hand for a pre-concert interview with Yaron Kohlberg, the competition’s president (and second prize winner in 2007). An enjoyable conversation, the pair talked about their respective background (Weiss is, in fact, a Cleveland-area native), collaborating together, and the various challenges and mechanics of performing with another pianist.

Shai Wosner © Marco Borggreve
Shai Wosner
© Marco Borggreve

The program was centered on large-scale works of Schubert and Brahms, both preceded without pause by a brief piece from David Lang, effectively functioning as preludes to the larger works. As per its title, Lang’s Gravity (2005) was marked by incessant and inexorably falling gestures, presented in glassy, otherworldly octaves. Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C major for Four Hands also introduced an oft-repeated downward gesture, a connective fiber between these works otherwise separated by nearly two centuries. The gentle beginnings belied its sudden dynamic contrasts, with mercurial mood shifts quintessentially Schubertian. The exposition repeat was observed, allowing the movement to bask in its spaciousness. In the secondo role, Weiss handled the pedaling, keenly judged, and one could feel a palpable chemistry between these two musical brothers.

The Andante proceeded as a richly flowing song. While not the composer’s most profound slow movement, its sheer beauty was nonetheless quite captivating. A more animated, almost violent, section near the end was played with conviction before a retreat to the understated. The Scherzo was great fun, given with vigor and abandon, along with a blazing virtuosity seldom encountered in Schubert – not in the least during the long chains of octaves. The finale, of Hungarian inflection, was irresistibly charming, with a moderate tempo choice adding weight and giving credence to the work’s “Grand Duo” moniker.

Orion Weiss © Jacob Blickenstaff
Orion Weiss
© Jacob Blickenstaff

A second piano was brought on-stage following intermission. Matters turned to Lang once again, suitably with After Gravity, dating from 2007 (incidentally, Before Gravity would follow in 2012). In both cases, Lang gave the pianists the option to perform on either four hands or two pianos, and the latter configuration was selected for the second work. Much like its predecessor, there was an ethereal quality, yet this was music of weightlessness and stasis, with a sense of forward motion nearly absent. By happy coincidence, the work ended on repeated Fs, introducing the tonality of the subsequent Brahms. The Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor took its final form as the Piano Quintet – heard during the previous entry of this concert series – yet Weiss and Wosner made a compelling case for the earlier incarnation. Brahms likely looked to the Schubert as inspiration in composing a work of such proportions for two pianists, and structurally both works bear more than passing resemblances.

The work opened in passionate beginnings, symphonic in scope and grandeur, and the duo had the same tight coordination as before even though the distance between them increased appreciably – particularly impressive were the rapid sixteenths in unison. In some regards, the work was even more imposing on two Steinways than in the version for quintet. The slow movement provided some respite in its unassuming lyricism, though matters grew impassioned nonetheless. Quiet beginnings in the Scherzo soon erupted into a thoroughly thrilling onslaught, showing in no uncertain terms what an arsenal of twenty fingers could muster. The slow introduction of the finale encouraged its gravitas, and the primary theme was deftly executed, leading to a powerhouse conclusion. As encores, the pianists offered a pair of the same composer’s Hungarian Dances (nos. 2 and 5), brooding and passionate.

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