Review by Judith Caldwell
Larisa and Alexei Gulenco presented a demanding program for two pianos, in this case two Steinway’s, in the new L. R. Wilson Concert Hall at McMaster University. The 350 seat Hall is a welcome addition to the Hamilton entertainment scene. The acoustics are excellent delivering a wonderful clarity of sound; plus the size is perfect for concerts and recitals.
The Gulenkos are a husband and wife team who each have impressive credentials. Alexei received his original musical training in Russia where he won the Rachmaninoff competition, then the Jose Iturbi competition in Spain and the Liszt in Italy.
Larisa hails from Moldova and she is a prize winner in competitions in Moldova, Romania and Italy. They have both performed around the world and currently teach in Hamilton.
The program began with Variations on a Theme of Beethoven’s by Camille Saint-Saëns. There are eight variations, plus a fugue, presto and coda. It began as a very pretty melody which moved into a more dramatic insistent beat and ended with an echoing melody which was quite effective. A very interesting mix of both Beethoven and Saint-Saëns. A short lovely melody, ‘Las ninas de Santa Fe’ by Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino was the second piece. The first half of the program wrapped up with Saint-Saëns season-themed ‘Danse macabre’. This is based on the 41 drawings called ‘The Dance of Death’ by the German painter Hans Holbein the younger, which depict death as a skeleton calling for the dead to rise from their graves and dance until dawn on Halloween. Originally written for voice and piano, Saint-Saëns also arranged it for two pianos. This very familiar piece which should have been a show stopper to wrap the first half, was actually very uneven with a couple of missed timings from which the performers recovered well.
After intermission the duo tackled Suite for 2 pianos No. 1, Fantaisie-tableaux by Rachmaninoff. Both performers seemed to be more relaxed and they performed this difficult piece flawlessly. It began with a lovely, lyrical Barcarolle; moved on to a passionate, romantic La nuit…l’amour; then to a pensive and sombre Les larmes; and finally to the dramatic, noisy, insistent Paques as a finale. The advertised program ended with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. Originally written for full orchestra, Dukas also arranged it for two pianos. This was a wonderful arrangement and most of the audience were probably picturing Mickey Mouse in his role as the apprentice from Fantasia. The Gulencos really seemed to enjoy this piece as much as the audience who gave them a standing ovation as the last note faded. As an encore the soloists tossed off Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor which was an amazing, wonderful tour de force with which to end the concert.