A Brilliant Piano Duo Plays Brahms

Two musicians perform with clarity, nuance, and parlor-room fun

Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin at Carnegie Hall.

Before the invention of the radio and phonograph, if you wanted music in your day-to-day life you had to make it yourself. Concerts were special events. But virtually every middle-class household in Europe, and nearly as many in America, had a piano in the parlor and family members who could play it. Parlor songs and sing-alongs were popular. But you could also acquaint yourself with concert music through arrangements for piano.

Schubert, for example, wrote volumes of piano duets, so-called four-hand piano music - dances, rondos, and variations, all meant to be sight-read at home with friends, not performed in concert halls. Even sprawling orchestral works - Mozart symphonies, Verdi overtures, Wagner opera transcriptions - were arranged for piano, either for four-hands at one keyboard, or for two pianos, the latter being geared toward more professional people, since most homes had only one piano.

To nonpianists, this may sound like more work than fun. But plowing through four-hand arrangements of music not conceived for the piano, like Mussorgsky's ``A Night on Bald Mountain'' or Beethoven's Fifth, can be a hoot. It can also be revealing. No amount of listening can teach you the inner workings of a classical symphony as well as playing it yourself on the piano. But sometimes this arranging business worked the other way: Compositions conceived for piano-duo got transformed by the composer into pieces for full orchestra. And the recent two-piano recital at Carnegie Hall by Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin served as a reminder of this.

The program opened with Brahms's ``Variations on a Theme by Haydn,'' which in its version for full orchestra is a repertory staple. But Ax and Serkin played the original version for two pianos. This is a complex, demanding work, not a piece for amateurs. Hearing this vivid performance, it was easy to understand why Brahms at first found the duo-piano sound-world so suited to this major composition.

In this piece, Brahms took a genial theme with curiously asymmetrical phrases (a theme he mistakenly attributed to Haydn) and put it through a metamorphosis of variations: There are learned episodes of intertwining counterpoint; lilting lullabies; bittersweet ruminations; fanfares; bumptious high jinks; a finale generated from a more or less traditional Baroque passacaglia.

The complexities of the music - the wayward harmonies, the thick layerings of inner voices, the dissonances - emerged with more clarity in this version for two pianos than in the familiar version with orchestral clothing. In a sense, by orchestrating the music Brahms softened it, made it seem more playful. His use of orchestral colors was stunning. But the clarity, ping, and sameness of the timbre in the two-piano version better reveal the music's true daring.

This concert was part of a series Ax has been presenting this season with various colleagues and orchestras devoted to works of Brahms and Schoenberg, the point being to demonstrate that Schoenberg's revolutionary music was an outgrowth of the path-breaking work of Brahms, and that both composers shared a basically Romantic attitude.

Perhaps no work on the season-long series could make Ax's point better than the two-piano version he and Serkin performed of Schoenberg's Second Chamber Symphony. Without the enticing (but distracting) instrumental sonorities the Schoenberg work, with its hauntingly lugubrious lyricism, almost heavy-footed peasant dance rhythms, and spiky harmonies - sounded positively late-Brahmsian.

The concert concluded with the Brahms Sonata in F minor for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, a work best known by far through its final version as the Quintet for Piano and Strings. Here too the performance was a revelation of clarity and nuance.

You could hear striking details that often get homogenized when throbbing strings take charge of this dramatic music.

AX and Serkin, both brilliant pianists, are quite different in approach. If they were brands of peanut butter, Ax would be creamy and Serkin would be chunky.

But they brought out the best in each other, and forged a bold, unified concept of the piece. You could say this performance was not creamy, or chunky, but chewy - and thrilling.

For an encore it was back to piano music as parlor-room fun. Ax and Serkin squeezed together before one piano and played a Brahms Hungarian dance for piano four-hands, practically sight-reading, with lots of dash and wrong notes galore. For their listeners, it was like being in Ax's or Serkin's living room, just listening to them having a good time, which is just what Brahms intended to happen.

* Remaining concerts in the series are scheduled for Jan. 18 featuring chamber music with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Pamela Frank; Jan .25 and 26 with the Cleveland Orchestra.

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