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Bernd Lhotzky & Chris Hopkins: Tandem

For those of us who need to take our stride piano in small, measured doses, and who also happen to think that the piano duo is a dubious concept, Tandem presents special challenges. While our hearts and minds can barely make room for one stride pianist, Tandem hits us with two, in harsh, glaring digital sound.

Press notes make the claim that “world-wide there are perhaps only a dozen piano players who have mastered the orchestral and sweeping style” of Harlem stride. Unquestionably, Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins are two.

On tours de force like “Shake It and Break It” and “Finger Buster,” they pull off the considerable achievement of doubling the density of stride without making a mess. Such performances demonstrate mind-boggling specialized two-handed virtuosity, but they sound more like work than fun. Even listening is work. The two solo pieces, Ellington’s “Warm Valley” (Hopkins) and Beiderbecke’s “Flashes” (Lhotzky) come as blessed relief because the racket quiets, leaving music.

“Bess, You Is My Woman Now” reveals both the grandness and the limitation of this art form. Lhotzky and Hopkins jointly build the song into imposing, intricate architecture. What is missing is the emotion-or rather, the human feeling becomes formal, objective, mannered and safely distant.

Originally Published