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Music review: Igor Lovchinsky and Jonathan Coombs at Phillips Collection

By Joan Reinthaler,

Generations of university music majors have cut their teeth on Walter Piston’s iconic “Harmony” text. It’s a great book but not the best way to get to know and understand Piston’s music. The program of his piano compositions that Igor Lovchinsky and Jonathan Coombs brought to the Phillips Collection on Sunday, however, did a pretty good job of this.

Piston, who died in 1976, was prolific in almost every instrumental medium but the solo piano. For that instrument, he wrote only a few pieces — two short works, “Improvisation” and “Passacaglia,” a piano sonata and a concerto for two pianos and orchestra that, in 1967 under the urging of duo-pianists Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz, Piston arranged for just the two pianos. Stecher and Horowitz organized this concert and were on hand Sunday to talk about Piston’s music.

Piston goes in for percussive statements. His themes bounce from octave to octave in two- or three-note bites, so that when the occasional legato line breaks out, it is particularly welcome. Coombs (who played both short pieces) and Lovchinsky (the soloist in the sonata ) managed all this without ever seeming to bang on the keyboard. They drew huge sounds from the piano that resonated rather than clanged and, given an opportunity for lyricism, their lines flowed in well-shaped moments of repose.

Together on the reconstituted concerto (and in an arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “El Salon Mexico” that ended the program), the two were extraordinarily well matched and produced some spectacular ensemble in passages that moved in an ever-accelerating frenzy.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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