Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo
Pianists are the luckiest of instrumentalists. We’re self-contained and unlike most other musicians, we can be a musical “island”. But while our ability to work without others is a gift during a pandemic, many of us yearn to return to the delight of making music with other people. I’ve had the privilege of performing with many musicians during my career as a pianist, but some of my favorite stage moments occurred when I was sharing the keyboard with another pianist. As half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, my long running collaboration with pianist Molly Wheeler taught me that there is an intimacy to 4-hand playing that can’t be found in any other form of collaborative playing. Performers breathe together, arms are entwined, and egos are sacrificed to the good of the ensemble. There is no individual glory in duet playing, just a melding of two players and four hands into one musical organism.
We may not be able to share the bench with our favorite duo partners right now, but we can use this time of forced separation to explore new repertoire. Much of the standard duet music is lovely but can also feel limited and overplayed. These 5 gems are ones I know intimately. They’re pieces that don’t show up on every 4-hand concert program. And because I love music with a tune and a beat, all these pieces are audience-accessible crowd pleasers, sit comfortably in the hands, and are rewarding to practice and perform.
Composer: Eleanor Alberga (b. 1949)
Description: In this rousing 9 minute party on a piano, Alberga draws on her Jamaican background to create a whirling celebration of color and cross-rhythms. 3-Day Mix requires the pianists to have a strong rhythmic sense and a fearless sense of bravura, but Alberga is a pianist and she knows how to make difficult passages feel accessible. Of all the 4-hand music I’ve performed, this piece may be the most fun two pianists can have on one keyboard, and its dramatic ending pulls an audience to its feet.
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Where to purchase: Eleanor Alberga
Composer: John Corigliano (b. 1938)
Description: This 16 minute 4-movement suite is, in Corigliano’s description, “ a musical depiction of the pavilions often seen on village greens throughout the countryside where public band concerts are given on summer evenings. It consists of a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio and a bouncy Tarantella.” This suite is rhythmically challenging and (at times) melodically unpredictable but the humor, beauty, and exuberance make it a joy to play. The Tarantella is a rousing way to end a concert.
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Where to purchase: Musicroom
Legacies: Fantasy-Suite on American Folk Songs
Composer: Terry McQuilkin (b. 1955)
Description: American folk song favorites Wayfaring Stranger, Jack Went a-Sailing, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Shenandoah, and Cindy are featured in this 14-minute 5-movement suite. McQuilkin walks the line between classical and jazz, requiring performers to possess both strong technique and the ability to swing and play a decent walking bass line. No folk song is presented in a straightforward manner; instead, these familiar tunes dart in and out of the texture, teasing performers and listeners with fragments of the familiar embedded in an unfamiliar landscape. In this way McQuilkin saves the folk songs emotional power; in the moments that the melodies emerge intact, they’re so powerful they’re like sun breaking through dark clouds.
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Where to purchase: Terry McQuilkin
Pièces Romantiques, Opus 55
Composer: Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Description: This jewel-box collection of 6 elegant, Romantic pieces is 19th century 4-hand French piano music at its finest. Similar in style to Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, these pieces by Chaminade contain lyrical melodies and elegant harmonies but are more accessible than Fauré to the late intermediate or early advanced player. These are pieces to be shared by and with friends—perfect jewel-box musical moments.
Difficulty level: Late intermediate/early advanced
Where to purchase: IMSLP / Sheet Music Plus
3 Modal Tangos
Composer: Alexander LaFollett (b. 1985)
Description: Mix a handful of unfamiliar modes and catchy melodies with traditional tango rhythms and you get 3 Modal Tangos. This 10 minute suite is technically and rhythmically accessible to the early advanced player, but has the benefit of sounding a lot more difficult than it is to play. The rhythms, melodies and solid structure make it feel familiar, but the modes keep the music fresh and unexpected. Satie-like performance notes give the tangos a theatrical feel, allowing the performers to explore unexpected ideas on how to approach the score.
Difficulty Level: Late intermediate/early advanced
Where to purchase: Alexander LaFollett
Rhonda Rizzo is a pianist, and author. She has released four CDs: Made in America,Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason,2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It. She has also released numerous articles and a novel, The Waco Variations. She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, No Dead Guys, and she is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist