A four hand piano recital with two pianists creating music on one piano inherently has the added promise of visual candy. Yet when the Shelest couple strode into Preston Bradley Hall for the WFMT simulcast before New Years their handsome presence lit up the room and riveted our eyes even before they took their two adjoining seats at the keyboard.
The performance that followed was as rich as the shimmering gold of Anna Shelest’s flowing skirt starting with Smetana’s “The Moldau from Má vlast”, followed by Arensky’s “Suite for Piano Four Hands No.2, Op.23 ‘Silhouettes’, and wrapping up with Ravel’s “La valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestra”.
Ukrainian natives who both attended the Ukraine’s Special School for Gifted Children to study piano, Anna Shelest and Dmitri Shelest are each accomplished musicians in their own right.
Anna’s professional solo performances began when she was only eleven (at UNESCO headquarters in Paris) and has brought her to stages spanning the globe from Vienna, to Carnegie Hall, to the Kennedy Center, Montreal, Netherlands and beyond.
She also has made many recordings, including several recent ones with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra of the Czech Republic.
Award-winning Dmitri started studying piano when he was only six, with his studies eventually bringing him to the United States to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Piano in Northern Kentucky University, where he later also pursued a degree in Entrepreneurship, which today he puts to good use selling pianos at Faust Harrison Pianos in Manhattan.
The one person who had probably heard the couple play their repertoire the most was absent from the concert hall that day. That would be their adored and adorable two-year old son Ivan, who stayed in New York, perhaps also freeing up the young parents for an exciting New Years eve date night in Chicago after their stellar performance.
Unlike couples you may know who can do anything except work together, the Shelest’s performance suggests that they thrive in the intimate space of their four hands working one keyboard. Dmitri comments, “I do hear of a lot of couples who can’t work together because they are too impatient with each other. In our case our marriage makes it helpful. We know one another and each other’s styles and what we want. We can take the best ideas and throw out the worst. We don’t waste time. If we didn’t know each other so well we would always have to be trying not to offend. If I’m doing something wrong Anna is not going to be struggling to find good language to tell me. We have an open and candid relationship and we work efficiently.
“We work with one piano four hand repertoire now because most performance venues have only one good piano. In this type repertoire the challenge is in sharing the keyboard. I sit on the left and Anna is on the right. During much of the repertoire our hands are in close contact in the middle, often overlapping and we have to work out the challenges of how to share this middle area.
“One of the great satisfactions of playing this way is that there is so much great repertoire for four hands. Anna performs extensively as a soloist. But when you also enjoy making music with someone else the team effort pays off in such a different way.
“We find that audiences respond well both visually to see hands moving in sync and also you can play more notes. That means it’s easier to make the sound more orchestral and the thrill is in bringing an orchestral effect on the stage. It’s much easier to do this with two people than it is for one and that inspires us to keep going.”
The couple’s teamwork for this performance began with their joint choices for the program, within the constraints of the 37-minute radio simulcast format, Dmitri recounts, “When we considered this format our first choice was in deciding how to finish the program, choosing Ravel’s ‘La valse’. We then thought that the Moldau would be a perfect opening piece because of its picturesque portrayal of a river and water that captures the ear quickly. Then, Arensky is a new work in our program that we came across by accident as it is not played very often. We were immediately struck by the beautiful construction of these five short pieces in a romantic style, and we wanted the audience to be as taken with it as we were upon our first hearing.”
Their stumble upon Arensky’s “Silhouettes” happened when a good friend of theirs introduced them to her brother, a pianist of some renown within Russia but better known worldwide as a chess player. This was Mark Taimanov, who played four hand piano with his wife Lubov Bruk. Taimanov had been falsely accused by the Soviet government of purposely throwing a chess match to Bobby Fisher. It was only after Fisher won another tournament that Taimanov’s reputation was rehabilitated by the Soviets. Taimanov and his wife gave Russian national performances only and had performed “Silhouettes” as part of their repertoire.
To find out more about them Dmitri did as we all now do—he googled. Here is a recording of Taimanov and Bruk playing this piece.
Dmitri recounts, “When I googled and found the second movement ‘La coquette’ I couldn’t take my ears off it…This is a piece that was originally written for two pianos. It stretches us musically and adds something different to our repertoire-- an elegance that cultures the performance. We hoped that the audience would respond to it as we did upon first hearing it.”
Dmitri continues “Arensky was a special composer who had been an inspiration and teacher to both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin and if he had lived longer he would likely be better known. He planted the seeds of what became early 20th century music.”
Dmitri shares that each of these three compositions were initially challenging to master, but that after a while they learned to handle the complexities. Of the “Moldau” Dmitri says, “Moldau has an opening with multiple voices that have to be smooth as water and when your reduce it to four hands on the piano these movements have to be elegant. The notes aren’t difficult but the more you get into it it’s like holding a piece of fine ice. You have to handle it very carefully and you can’t hold it too tight. You can’t let it melt. You can’t let it break. When you take this piece to the next level it is actually the most difficult piece in our repertoire. We have as many notes than a whole orchestra and need to maintain elegance and lightness.”
Of Ravel’s “La valse”, Dmitri says, “Ravel is electrifying…” . You can hear the Shelests play “La valse “ in this Youtube recording.
“Electrifying” is actually an apt word for the whole of the Shelest’s performance. As planned, “Moldau” did immediately grab us into the sounds of water, at times sounding more like a waterfall than a river. “La coquette” seemed so well-named, light hearted and flirting with our spirits. In turns, the Shelests ran their fingers across the entire register of the piano in the Ravel piece. Throughout the concert they swayed as one, brows knit and untied in unison, and an occasional phrase had husband or wife cross their arm over their spouse to do their part. All in all, it was about large sound and a peek at a collaboration grounded in the mutual understanding of true intimacy.
Look for word of discography of Anna Shelest solos on the Anna Shelest website and on the site’s pages devoted to the couple’s duo performances. In particular, the couple is now also working on a timely compilation of works by Ukrainian composers to help bring more awareness to the unique Ukrainian cultural legacy that they feel is often over looked because of more prominent Russian composers.
Dame Myra Hess concerts showcasing world-class talents like the Shelests are held every Wednesday at 12:15 PM in the Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center at the intersection of Randolph and Michigan Avenues.
Photos courtest of Dmitri and Anna Shelest,unless otherwise indicated