Young Dutch Pianists, The Jussen Brothers, Surprise With Sensitive Performance

Looks like another music appreciation class disguised as a concert, I mused to myself, glancing at the repertoire list—Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Ravel—for Thursday night’s concert by the Dallas Symphony and conductor Jaap van Zweden at the Meyerson Symphony Center. My cynicism deepened when I noticed that the guest artists, whose names I didn’t recognize, were teenage brothers, born in 1993 and 1996; I’m always suspicious about adolescent prodigies and the potential psychological damage that can take place when a youngster, even though very talented, is pushed too soon into the spotlight, and deprived of necessary normal social interaction. It didn’t really help my attitude to read in the program book that Portuguese pianist Mari Joao Pires had declared this particular pair of Dutch prodigies to be the most talented pianists in the world—an odd statement to make about any pianist at any age.

I began to cheer up a bit, however, just a few bars into the opening work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence for Strings. In spite of its title, the piece is neither French nor Italian in mood, nor does it paint scenes from Florence. It presents, instead, Tchaikovsky’s craftsmanship at its highest level, and often in surprising ways. The second movement begins in a mood that could hardly be described as anything but sentimental, before eliding, with great subtlety, into a tough, muscular middle section—thus causing us to hear the return of the opening theme in a whole new way. Under Van Zweden, the Dallas Symphony strings produced a sound that is not only beautiful, but solid. Another high point arrived at the beginning of the third movement, with the introduction of the echt-Russian melody, mellow and energetic, by the viola sectio

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E-flat for Two Pianos and Orchestra followed; my knee-jerk disdain for too-young young artists was not allayed when young Arthur and Lucas Jussen strolled on stage in oversized tailcoats and untucked shirts, with sheepdog mops of hair, for their first public performance in America. But I was gasping in amazement the minute they started to play.

The sensitivity to the shape of each phrase, the utterly clean passagework, the gloriously clean extended trills, and, most impressive of all, the obvious instinct for the subtle passions of Mozart, combined to make Pires’ assignment of remarkable talent to these young men seem not so outlandish. The brilliant, joyous humanity of the final movement was almost heartbreakingly beautiful. And, as one might expect, the Jussens have that almost magical aura of mutual ESP that one occasionally sees and hears in the very best chamber ensembles. They proved this further in the glittering, teasing rubato of their encore, late romantic Russican composer Anton Arensky’s La Coquette.

In a surprisingly effective programming strategy, conductor Van Zweden closed the program with the complete ballet music of Ravel’s Mother Goose, a work more known in an earlier version as a concert suite (there’s also an even earlier version for piano duet). Here, Ravel is at his best—tender, colorful, and humorous—in a musical depiction of classic French fairy tales. Although one is occasionally aware of the demands of the theater taking precedence over the demands of the concert hall in this version, its inclusion as a sort of different view of the familiar material was intriguing and, once again, performed brilliantly by Van Zweden and the orchestra. For some reason, the program notes for this piece (including those for this concert, quoting Ravel biographer Norman Demuth) always seem to insist on telling us that Mother Goose “cannot be classed as great music”—as if dealing with the dreams of childhood on a level that is both intricate and engaging somehow disqualifies a work from being regarded as “great.”  I’m not quite sure what Demuth, may he rest in peace, meant by greatness, but hearing Van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony bring that perfectly conceived and crafted closing movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose to life certainly sounded like greatness to me.