Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dreaming on

I've been wondering for a couple of days how best to describe Double Dream, the glorious evening of two-piano bedazzlement from the Russian classical virtuoso Mikhail Rudy and the jazz supremo from Ukraine/Norway Misha Alperin.

The project started life about seven years ago and launched with a beautiful CD, which gives you the idea - take a range of classical works, pass them back and forth at high heat, watch them grow and transform like chemical crystals under waterglass. The concert caught on and the pair have travelled the world with it (most recently Sydney); now, after years of working together, they're at their peak both individually and as a duo. Each maintains his own identity, but together they are more than the sum of their parts. And Double Dream is more than just a concert.

Kings Place was its ideal London home: it has the perfect acoustic of the Wigmore, the space, high-tech capabilities and delicious new-wood aroma of The Sage, the intimacy of, if not quite Ronnie Scotts, then almost. Double Dream is enhanced by creative lighting, opening in darkness (Schumann's Prophet Bird, its feathers in textures you've never encountered before), later blazing into floor-level red for a Prokofiev Toccata adaptation that could have had the startled composer on his feet, cheering, wondering why he hadn't thought of all that himself.

Throughout, a giant screen is poised above the pianists, split in two - one half for each Misha - showing close-ups of hands or faces, Alperin's extraordinary plastic features morphing through vocal ad-libs as he plays and Rudy smiling quietly to himself, his partner and us. The pianists face each other across the Steinways, but the video reverses this: when the images meet in the middle of the screens, a peculiar creature appears apparently with one back, four feet and four very busy arms.

Each pianist has a solo spot: Alperin improvised his way to a tremendous pitch of excitement that somehow drew in an unexpected extract of Rodeo, among other things; Rudy took Petroushka's fairground scene, one of his great party pieces, and, while playing it as written, managed to make it sound improvised. Many pieces are Alperin's own - catchy, irresistibly rhythmic, deliciously virtuoso. And in their far-flung net the pianists trap the shadows of a Chopin mazurka, fleeting moments of Janacek, the silvery gleam of a Haydn adagio. What playing. What creativity. What magic.

On Thursday, the second night of his Piano Dialogues days at KP, Mikhail Rudy joined forces with the actor Peter Guinness, with whom he collaborated a couple of years ago for the British version of The Pianist, his play for actor and pianist based on Wladislaw Szpilman's memoirs. This time it was Janacek and Kafka: the latter's beautiful, quirky Letters to Milena, warm and touching and painful by turns, in which the author traces his love affair with his much younger, married translator.

Kafka and Janacek, the two great and not very bouncy Czechs, never met, but proved a perfect match nonetheless, to the point that from time to time it was almost difficult to remember that it wasn't Janacek who wrote the letters (which half-suggest, like a slightly distorting mirror, Janacek's passion for Kamila Stosslova). Micha paired music and words with inspired sensitivity, grasping the subtlest shades of emotion to match and amplify in the most heart-wrenching moments of In the Mists, the Piano Sonata and extracts from On an Overgrown Path. Again, masterly and unforgettable.

As a finishing touch, each evening the St Pancras Room hosted a screening of a new documentary about Micha, entitled Mikhail Rudy: Portrait of a Pianist, directed by Andy Sommer and narrated (English version) again by Peter Guinness. It's a moving and at times harrowing account of his journey from Soviet Russia to Western triumph and makes all too clear the immense personal cost of such a move - alienation from one's family, a reunion almost too late.

Rudy and Guinness will be doing a two-week run of The Pianist in the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in June. Meanwhile I am trying to learn as much as possible from their presentation so that we can attempt to make the Hungarian Dances event - similar in format, if not content - perhaps half as beautiful.