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Music Review

A Place for Piano, Even When It Needs 6 Hands

Published: July 21, 2009

Le Poisson Rouge, the Greenwich Village cabaret, has made its name by presenting an exciting lineup of contemporary-music artists and ensembles playing everything from classical modern to indie rock. But once in a while, lest its clientele start making assumptions, the managers of the club dip into the past. So it was on Monday night, a program that opened with Stephanie & Saar, duo pianists, playing Bach.

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Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times

Jenny Lin performing at Le Poisson Rouge on Monday in a program with Stephanie & Saar.



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Of course, this being Le Poisson Rouge, the married pair (Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) played five works by Bach (a selection from a cantata, a prelude and fugue for organ, and more), with one Frescobaldi piece tossed in, as arranged for four-hand piano by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. Mr. Kurtag’s arrangements, filtered through his contemporary sensibility, emerge as riveting transformations of the originals. The duo gave beautifully understated performances.

Bach’s presence also hovered over the featured artist of the evening, the dynamic pianist Jenny Lin, who played 5 of the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich, composed in 1950-51. The concert was partly a release party for Ms. Lin’s new two-CD recording of the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues on Hänssler Classic, a German label.

In composing his 24 Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich was paying homage to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” two books of 24 preludes and fugues, written in all major and minor keys. Yet while heeding the protocols of contrapuntal writing, Shostakovich boldly grasped the prelude and fugue genre from Bach and took it to the 20th century.

Though Ms. Lin plays a wide-ranging repertory, including concertos by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, she has made her reputation as a champion of contemporary music. On this night she was beautifully attentive to the Neo-Classical formalities and elegance of the Shostakovich works, while bringing out the modernist twists and harmonic pungencies.

She began with the deceptively simple Prelude No. 1 in C, which at first seems a contemplative chorale, until the chords start to wander harmonically and are interrupted by quizzically meandering lines. Ms. Lin was equally fine in the steadfast fugue that follows, music so serenely contrapuntal you almost do not notice the dark stirrings below the surface.

Ms. Lin gave a brilliant account of the rippling Prelude No. 2 in A minor, which sounded like some unhinged toccata, followed by the slightly crazy fugue, with its jagged theme and asymmetrical phrases, music that the composer Conrad Cummings, who introduced the program, rightly described as “terrifying.”

Other high points were the joyous Prelude and Fugue in A (the fugue is like some apotheosis of a brass fanfare) and the Fugue in B flat, all complex counterpoint and wildly fractured rhythms, like some metric mind trap. Ms. Lin ended with a coolly urgent account of the monumental final Prelude and Fugue in D minor.

One of the Bach/Kurtag pieces was arranged for piano six hands. So Ms. Lin lent her two to the Stephanie & Saar Duo. Le Poisson Rouge, where all kinds of contemporary music and the artists who play it are welcome, seems to foster such collegiality.