Review: Jalbert and Song pound the keyboards with striking Russian music

It was a weekend for powerhouse partnerships on the classical scene. After Saturday’s magnificent Beethoven recital with Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin, pianists David Jalbert and Wonny Song paired up on Sunday for a barnstorming program of Russian music for two pianos.

Jalbert, who teaches piano at the University of Ottawa, has a dazzling new CD out of ballet scores by Stravinsky and Prokofiev transcribed for solo piano. At Tabaret Hall, he and Montreal-based Song performed Stravinsky’s own two-piano version of Petrouchka, along with Rachmaninov’s Suite no. 1 for two pianos, and Milhaud’s lively two-piano suite Scaramouche

Jalbert and Song are evenly matched in virtuosity and temperament, with a similar hefty sound, snappy rhythmic attack, and feeling for the orchestral possibilities of their combined instruments. The Rachmaninov was opulently coloured, almost symphonic in its presentation, from the rapturous sensuality of La Nuit … L’Amour to the spectacular, hypnotic bell effects in the Pâques finale.

Scaramouche was jazzy and boisterous, the samba-like Brasileira churning along like a merry tropical parade.  But Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty seemed under-rehearsed; the two pianists were noticeably disunited, even falling off the beat at one point, while the beautiful, intricate inner voices wanted more definition and variety. The bass line sounded more oom-pah-pah than Imperial waltz.

Petrouchka, on the other hand, was anything but slack. Stravinsky’s thickly layered dissonances and complex rhythmic effects make this an extraordinarily difficult transcription to pull off. Beyond the dazzling precision and sweep of their technique, Jalbert and Song delivered a performance that was above all authentically balletic and richly theatrical, with each of the characters and scenes as distinct and vividly painted as in the original orchestration. It was a double-barrelled pianistic tour de force.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.