Concert Review: Bergmann Duo show that four hands are better than two

Alysha Black plays Bruch's Violin Concerto in D Minor

Alysha Black plays Bruch’s Violin Concerto in D Minor before the North Okanagan Community Concert Association’s presentation of the Bergmann Duo, at the Performing Arts Centre.
— image credit: Christine Pilgrim

By Christine Pilgrim – Vernon Morning Star

Sixty years ago, it was common to see a piano in a living room, with a stash of music nearby.

Many of us stumbled through that music while others became more proficient and some even experienced the thrill of finishing on the same beat in a duet. But none, save perhaps a precious few, could even come close to the skill with which Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann (of the Bergmann Duo) entertained at the North Okanagan Community Concert Association’s penultimate concert of the 2014/15 season.

The precision, proficiency and unity with which they played contrasted sharply with their easy style and sense of competitive fun when they introduced the pieces.

A case in point was their introduction to the fifth of Maurice Ravel’s fairytale tunes written for his friends’ children in his Mother Goose Suite (Ma Mere l’Oye). It was entitled Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.

“I’ll play Beauty; you can be the Beast,” said Elizabeth to her husband as he picked up her translation from the French text that accompanied the tune.

When the Beast (Marcel) protested his love for Beauty (Elizabeth) she suggested in true wifely fashion that he could show more feeling. Both then proceeded to do exactly that on NOCCA’s celebrated, soon-to-retire Steinway grand.

Friday’s program opened with Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Opus 23. Johannes Brahms wrote them after Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent insistence that he be admitted to an asylum near the family’s Dusseldorf home. The variations’ haunting sadness reflects Brahms’ feelings of loss and admiration for his friend and mentor. And the Bergmanns’ sensitive interpretation paid tribute to both great composers.

There followed four of six little pieces (Six Morceaux Opus 11) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.  The Bergmanns didn’t include Chanson Russe, based on an obscure Russian folk song, nor Romance, which might have been too cloying for these light-hearted lovers. But the remaining four compensated royally, with Barcarolle in G Minor. (Its rich, mysterious tones reminded its publisher of “a gondolier navigating Venetian canals beneath a moonlit sky.”)  A sprightly Scherzo led to an intense Valse that provoked the duo to sway in rhythm as their hands flew over the keys and flicked through the pages of music. The Morceaux ended with the monumentally majestic Slava.

The Bergmann Duo did equal justice to Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s two “morceaux” from his Dadaesque Ironien Opus 34.  Schulhoff was one of the first Europeans to weave jazz into classical music but his place in musical history was cut short by his untimely death in Wultzburg Concentration Camp in the 1940s.

The program ended with Henry Levine’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which brought the house down… and up, in an inevitable standing ovation.

The Bergmanns’ virtuosity shone again in their encore, when they tangoed on both keyboard and piano stool in perfect time, tune and harmony. That tango, once described as “a vertical expression of a horizontal intent,” left no more to be said except that this month’s curtain raiser, Max Bruch’s Concerto in D Minor, was beautifully performed by local violinist Alysha Black, accompanied by Arnold Draper.

A slightly shaky beginning did not diminish the depth of feeling with which this gifted young musician interpreted Bruch’s intricate work.

It’s no wonder the B.C. Touring Council nominated NOCCA as presenter of the year. Its final concert this season features the Elektra Women’s Choir at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre May 23, 2015.

Freelance writer Christine Pilgrim reviews NOCCA’s concert season for the Vernon Morning Star.