Piano duo has charm, spontaneity

Classical Sounds

November 10, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Difficult as it is nowadays to make a career as a solo pianist, it is harder still -- much harder -- for two pianists to survive as a two-piano team.

"I wouldn't advise anyone to do it," says Alexei Kuznetsoff, who is one half of the Lisitsa-Kuznetsoff duo.

"Part of the problem is conductors," says Valentina Lisitsa, who is Kuznetsoff's partner not only at the keyboard, but also in marriage.

"Conductors usually only know two or three two-piano concertos -- the Mozart, the Poulenc and perhaps the Bartok," she adds. "Most of them don't even know of the two very beautiful ones by Mendelssohn."

Kuznetsoff and Lisitsa speak of these things without bitterness. For one thing, they are successful: They will be the soloists when Charles Dutoit takes the French National Orchestra on a world tour later this year, and -- despite what they say about conductors -- powerful conductors such as Valery Gergiev and Jerry Schwarz have been so impressed by them that they want to work with the duo.

And they are delighted that they no longer have to face trying to make careers in the former Soviet Union. They were trained at the Kiev Conservatory in what is now Ukraine -- where their life as a two-piano team would have been impossible.

"We would never have even thought of playing together there," says Kuznetsoff, laughing.

Why not?

"Just try to find a hall where there is even one good piano, not to mention two," he says, laughing even harder. "Here it's at least possible."

But not easy, and certainly not glamorous. The two 26-year-old pianists -- they met as teen-agers at the conservatory -- travel to each engagement in an 8-year-old Buick. They had just driven to Baltimore -- where Lisitsa had a solo engagement to play Shostakovich's Concerto No. 1 -- from their home in Miami Beach. And after Baltimore they were headed for a two-piano recital at the University of Chicago.

They explain that they drive partly to save money -- they recently bought a house in Miami Beach and have mortgage payments to meet -- and partly because they like to drive.

"It's really not that hard," Lisitsa says of their automobile marathons.

That may be because it is her husband who does most of it.

What's the most he's ever had to drive?

"Do you want to know the longest or the fastest?" he replies good-naturedly.

"The longest was 1,700 miles, from Dallas to New York, but we took our time," he says.

"The fastest was 1,600 miles -- from Miami to west Texas -- that was in a single day," Kuznetsoff adds.

But, with all the long-distance driving he has to do, when does he find time to practice?

"I've learned to drive with only my left hand," he says with a grin, holding up his left hand as if it were gripping the steering wheel of an automobile and using his other to play imaginary scales, "while I practice with my right hand!"

Kuznetsoff and Lisitsa are a charming and attractive couple, who are also well matched musically. Two new recordings on Audiofon -- a small audiophile label in Miami -- confirm critical opinions at the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune that the Lisitsa-Kuznetsoff duo may be the best two-piano team to come along in years. The first (Audiofon CD 72053) contains a superb reading of Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 1, as well as terrific performances of two-piano works by Chopin, Liszt and Shostakovich. A second (Audiofon CD 72054), featuring 20th- century music by Bolcom and Schnittke as well as Debussy's "En Blanc et Noir" and Godowsky's treacherous arrangement of Weber's "Invitation to the Dance," is no less remarkable.

The young Ukrainians perform with a rare spontaneity, which leaves the impression that each can play so freely because the other is prepared for almost anything.

The Rachmaninoff suite's first two movements, subtitled, respectively, "Barcarolle" and "A Night of Love," have never sounded so palpalbly warm or more voluptuously sensual. And the finale, "Russian Easter," is joyously brilliant in its idiomatic tintinnabulation.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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