It’s enough of a treat to hear Jenny Lin, Lura Johnson or Audrey Andrist perform — but to have all three pianists on the same stage, as they were on Sunday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is just a spectacular abundance of talent. The three are members of the contemporary music ensemble Verge, and as part of the museum’s Steinway Series, they presented an afternoon of 20th century Russian music that ranged from youthful works by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin to Igor Stravinsky’s earth-shaking piano reduction of his score to “The Rite of Spring.”
Rachmaninoff’s “Valse and Romance” for six hands, written when the composer was all of 17, is dedicated to three girls his own age — and as you might expect, it’s a charming and lyrical work, which received an affectionate reading from all six hands involved. But things got substantially more interesting in Stravinsky’s “Piano Sonata” from 1924, played by Lin. It’s a remarkable work, steeped in baroque and classical-era music but with a grin behind the counterpoint that keeps it always fresh, a little off balance, always surprising. Lin — who just released a superb recording of all Stravinsky’s piano music — turned in a sharp-edged reading full of her own distinct brand of quiet, intent ferocity.
Scriabin’s brooding little “Etude in C-sharp minor, Op 2., No. 1” is another teenaged work, and Andrist played it with poignancy and tenderness. Johnson’s riveting account of Prokofiev’s “Sonata No. 7, Op. 83,” though, really stole the show. It’s a complex, subversive work, written in 1942 after the arrest and subsequent death of a friend of the composer’s, and Johnson looked unflinchingly into its anguished depths.
The second half of the program was devoted to something of a musical footnote: the piano version of Stravinsky’s orchestral ballet “The Rite of Spring,” which was used for the dance rehearsals before the 1913 premiere. The Rite is a work of almost unparalleled orchestral color — and one of the great symphonic experiences of all time — so to hear it stripped to its bones was at first a little disconcerting, as if hearing it over the telephone. But Johnson and Andrist gave it a thundering performance, capturing the Rite’s jagged rhythms and driving, elemental power, and by the end you half expected the piano to be in pieces on the floor.
Brookes is a freelance writer.