The Bergmann Duo
Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann (pianos)
Edmonton Recital Society
Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Sunday, January 21st, 2017
Mozart, arranged Busoni: Overture to The Magic Flute
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, original version for two pianos, Op.56b
Bernstein, arranged Marcel Bergmann: selections from West Side Story
Marcel Bergmann: Urban Pulse
Dave Brubeck, arranged M. Bergmann: Blue Rondo à la Turk
Astor Piazzolla, arranged M. Bergmann: Oblivion
Astor Piazzolla, arranged M. Bergmann: Libertango
Egberto Gismonti, arranged M. Bergmann: Infancia
It’s always enjoyable watching, as well as listening to, piano duos. The rapport, concentration, and almost instinctive understanding needed is considerable, and to be able see the facial interaction between the two players, ranged at opposite ends of two concert grands nestling into each other, can draw an audience in to the music making in a very particular way.
That musical and personal intimacy is even more intense when the duo are husband and wife, as are Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann. They have been performing as the Bergmann Piano Duo for well over two decades now, having originally met at the the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover in Germany (Marcel’s country of birth). For much of that time they were based in Calgary (Elizabeth was born in Medicine Hat), and they now live in White Rock, B.C., where they are artistic directors of the celebrated White Rock series of concerts. They have toured extensively in North America and Europe, and in May will be playing a series of concerts in China. Their repertoire is very extensive, from classic two-piano works, through new compositions (including works by Marcel himself), to jazz and jazz-inspired arrangements. Their considerable discography reflects this – they have recorded, for example, minimalist works, piano versions of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and music by Debussy and Rachmaninov, and all Bolcolm’s music for two pianos. Their latest album, American Stories, features excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story arranged by Marcel, along with other arrangements of jazz-tinged South and North American music.
Their recital at Muttart Hall on Sunday January 21st, presented by the Edmonton Recital Society, was largely drawn from the repertoire on this CD, with a first half that added a couple of more obviously classical works. It began with Busoni’s masterful arrangement of the overture to The Magic Flute, immediately establishing the duo’s musical virtues: a penchant for rich textures, especially in the lower range, a sureness of touch, a clean clarity in the upper end of the keyboard. They were a little hampered by a slight mismatch in the pianos they had been supplied with, the Steinway being audibly superior to the Yamaha, with its rather more twangy upper range. That was in itself instructive, as Marcel appeared to rather neatly compensate when playing the latter (the two regularly swapped pianos in the recital).
It was good, too, to hear the original two-piano version of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, so familiar in its orchestral guise. That original theme (not, incidentally, by Haydn but probably by Playel) sounds so Russian in the two-piano opening statement, and the second variation gave some credence to the stories that Brahms was supposed to have spend some of his teenage years playing piano in the bars of Hamburg – one could well imagine Marcel creating a jazzy version of this variation. That instinctive interaction between the two players was exemplified in the perfect unison of the rallentando in the final movement.
The highlight of the concert, though, was the music from Bernstein’s West Side Story, arranged for two pianos by Marcel. The music sits really well on the two keyboards; the arrangements are always at the service of the music, and never designed merely to show of the players or the two-piano format. Each of the movements played here had its strong pianist tone and atmosphere: smoky bar in ‘Maria’, a touch of Rachmaninov at the Hollywood Bowl in ‘Tonight’, a nod, indeed, to the world of the Haydn Variations in ‘One Hand, One Heart’, high drama in ‘The Rumble’, shades of Satie in ‘America’.
The arrangements evenly distribute the material between the two players, too, with a lot of handing over. Here the Bergmanns were a wonderful visual contrast: Marcel rather hunched over the piano, rather as if he was himself in some smoky Hamburg port-side dive, his left leg thrusting out from time to time, Elizabeth more upright, restrained, old-school Boston, perhaps. When they introduce works (which they do with humour and aplomb), their verbal overlapping is in itself a kind of musical counterpoint, as instinctive as their playing.
The second half opened with Urban Pulse, a work in three shortish movements by Marcel himself, commissioned in 2005 for the 10th Dranoff International Two Piano Competition. Although there are inevitably some elements designed for competition – such as the wide variety, from a bluesy walking bass to the fast and furious, in the central movement, ‘Cerulean Beat’ (if you wondered, cerulean is a colour range in the blue spectrum) – the work stands well on its own, encompassing some of Marcel’s interests, from the influence of minimalism in the opening and close (the ‘urban pulse’ of the title), through jazz. (You can hear and see the Bergmann Duo playing the work here.)
The remainder of the works were arrangements by Marcel of music with jazz or dance influence. The audience loved them, and if I personally might have hoped for one more work drawn from the classical repertoire, it was all enormously entertaining, played with gusto and enthusiastic energy – another hallmark of the duo (indeed, I don’t think there was a pp, let alone a ppp, in the whole recital). Brubeck’s famous Blue Rondo à la Turk transfers well to two pianos (though I subconsciously kept expecting to hear brushes on cymbals), and the encore – an arrangement by Marcel of the jazz pianist Chick Corea’s Spanish pastiche, La fiesta – transported us to the land of flamenco.
Egberto Gismonti, who was born in Brazil 1947 of Sicilian and Lebanese parents and studied with Nadia Boulanger and Jean Barraqué, has performed with many groups, including a trio with the famed Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. His Infancia (‘Childhood’) was attractive enough, influenced by Villa-Lobos. The highlight of this section, though, were two works by the foremost composer of tangos, the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). I had last heard some of his tangos played by the Vaughan String Quartet and the Italian-born Edmontonian accordionist Antonio Peruch, in a 2016 concert, and was rather disappointed. Not here. The Bergmanns created a rich-textured large-scale soundscape for Oblivion, and a real feel for the tango in Libertango, with a wonderful textured crescendo at its end, converting me to the merits of this attractive music.
The Bergmanns had not appeared in Edmonton for some years before this recital. I do hope it is not such quite a long gap until their next visit, and that perhaps we might have the opportunity sometime to hear at least one of Marcel’s major works for the duo, the Concerto for Two Pianos (which was premiered in 2014 in Red Deer) or the Concerto for Piano Four-Hands and Chamber Ensemble, premiered at the White Rock Concerts last year.