Tag Archives: piano four hands

Four hands, one keyboard – a playlist for IDAGIO

There’s a unique intimacy in the piano duet and a special etiquette must be observed when playing. For this reason, you need to be on friendly terms with your duet partner! The players sit very close together at the keyboard, often their hands will touch or cross over (Debussy’s Petite Suite contains much hand-crossing between the players), and each must be alert to the other’s part, sensitive to details of tempo, dynamics and musical expression, while details of pedalling and page-turns need to be agreed in advance. While some works for piano duet are undoubtedly aimed at children or junior players, many are highly complex, technically and musically challenging, such as Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands and works by Rachmaninoff and Messiaen. Some of the greatest pianists of the 20th century have enjoyed the very special relationship of the piano duet, including Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, and Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, the great British piano duo from an earlier era.

Listen to the playlist

(not available in the US and Canada)

The Viennese Salon: Innocence and Lust

The Françoise-Green Duo at St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 31st March 2016

  

The five-concert residency at St John’s Smith Square by the Françoise-Green piano duo is exploring the music of Vienna’s musical landscape through its salon culture, from Mozart and Schubert to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Vienna’s unique system of private and public patronage allowed composers such as Mozart to present their music to a select audience via the salon. For Schubert, who did not have the kind of patronage and support Mozart enjoyed, nor publishers eagerly clamouring for his music, performances within the privacy of his own circle of friends was the only way his audacious music found a truly receptive audience. This salon culture became even more pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century, when Schoenberg and his cohort broke away from the Vienna Tonkunstlerverein and built their own community for the performance of their music outside of the mainstream where much of their music was premiered through private performance societies. The Françoise-Green Duo pay a special hommage to this by performing new works which they have commissioned especially for their residency.

Music for piano duo is often, and mistakenly, regarded as “light” – music to be enjoyed at home amongst friends, and the enduring popularity of music for piano duo is testament to its appeal, variety and inventiveness. Both Mozart and Schubert wrote fine works for piano 4-hands, including the latter’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, arguably the most profound work ever written for this genre.

This particular concert, the third in the series, revealed the contrasting characters of Vienna, from the elegance and wit of Mozart through Schubert’s bittersweet Allegro in A minor ‘Lebenssturme’, D947, to the decadence and eroticism of fin de siecle Vienna of Alban Berg, reimagined by British composer Kenneth Hesketh in his Die letzten Augenblicken der Lulu, and the world premiere of ‘Fable’, a new work by Colin Alexander which was dedicated to the duo.

The Françoise-Green Duo are notable for their confident and convincing handling of contemporary repertoire – one has the sense of two musicians who actively relish the challenges, both technical and artistic, that this music presents – yet their opening piece, the Sonata in F K497, written at the end of Mozart’s life, proved them at home in more traditionally “classical” repertoire. In this sonata, the two pianists are equal players, sparking off one another, and creating witty dialogues interspersed with rich orchestral textures. In the softer dynamic range, the pianists brought a tenderness which immediately shrank the large space of St John’s Smith Square to an intimate salon.

Kenneth Hesketh’s work is both a redaction of Berg’s ‘Lulu Suite’ focusing on the main material in the suite, but also providing a flashback of Lulu’s life in the immediate moments before her death. Soprano Sarah Gabriel’s performance in this work was dramatic and vulnerable, and the combination of spoken word and vocal line, culminating in a full-throated scream signifying Lulu’s death at the hand of Jack the Ripper, was searing. The piano part created an unsettling undercurrent, increasing in urgency towards the tragic denouement.
After the interval came the world premiere of Colin Alexander’s ‘Fable’, a work which fully utilised the fine acoustic of St John’s Smith Square, the resonance of the Steinway D, and the duo’s technical assuredness. At times, the sounds emanating from the piano recalled bells, bassoons, horns and chanting, which built in intensity to create a hypnotic whole. It put me in mind of Somei Satoh’s mesmeric Incarnation II, which uses the resonance of the piano to similar effect.
It’s all too easy to ascribe a certain mindset or state of health to Schubert’s music: his illness, syphilis, and its disturbing and debilitating treatment and side effects are well-documented. Whatever the composer’s mental state in the final year of his life, there is no doubt that this was a period of fervent, boundary-breaking creativity. The ‘Lebenssturme’ (Life’s Storm – a title assigned by the publisher after Schubert’s death) opens with a dramatic motif of forte (check) chords which gives way to an ethereal second subject, which Antoine Françoise seemed to float across the upper register of the piano. It’s a substantial work whose structure hints that Schubert might have had something longer in mind and which demonstrates fully the breadth and daring of his creativity in the year of his life. 

For an encore, the duo played the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K19d (dropped from the original programme better to accommodate the new works) Written when the composer was still a boy, yet already bright with promise, witty, colourful, and elegantly turned by Robin Green and Antoine Françoise.

‘The Viennese Salon’ continues at St John’s Smith Square on 7 April with a rare opportunity to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 arranged for piano four-hands by Alexander von Zemlinsky together with works by Mozart and the world premiere of a new piece by Alissa Firsova. Further information here

Recommended.

Concert review: Maria Joao Pires & Pavel Kolesnikov at Wigmore Hall

Teacher and pupil took the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday 20th February in a joint concert by Maria João Pires and Pavel Kolesnikov featuring late works by Schubert and Beethoven, and Schumann’s love letter in music to Clara Wieck, the Fantasy in C, Opus 17.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way

Pavel Kolesnikov, the young Siberian pianist who has already garnered many prizes and much praise for his playing, is a soloist of the Music Chapel in Brussels, studying with Maria João Pires as part of her ‘Partitura Project’ which offers a benevolent relationship between artists of different generations and seeks to thwart the “star system” by offering an alternative approach in a world of classical music too often dominated by competitions and professional rivalry. In keeping with the spirit of the Partitura Project, the pianists shared the piano in two works for piano four-hands by Schubert and each remained on the stage while the other performed their solo. From the outset, this created a rather special ambience of support and encouragement.

Read my full review here

Music Notes: «Resonance de l’Originaire»

The first of a new series of occasional posts…..

I was given this album by a friend for my 40th birthday in autumn 2006. I thought turning 40 would be easy: I told myself it was “just a number” and that it had no real significance, that it was just another day in my life. In fact, my birthday coincided with a difficult period in my adult life, when I realised, with a shock, that the boundaries of one’s emotional life are not completely impermeable, and that being married does not make one immune to another person’s attention and admiration.

During the year of my birthday, I started playing the piano seriously again after an absence of over 15 years (in the preceding years I was busy getting married, setting up home, working in publishing and antiquarian bookselling, having a child, and I lost interest in the thing about which I cared very passionately when I was at school). Some of the first pieces I returned to were Schubert’s D899 Impromptus and the Moments Musicaux, pieces I had always liked, and attempted and played rather badly as a precocious teenager (my mother bought me the score after hearing Alfred Brendel play them – more about this here). Returning to the piano after such a long time away was very hard, yet it was gratifying to find pieces that had been carefully learnt in my teens had not been entirely forgotten and were still “in the fingers” (as a professional pianist colleague of mine said once “the body does not forget that easily” – and it’s true). At that time, I didn’t even have a piano: I was playing, and teaching, on a digital piano, which did the job, but had none of the subtlety nor refinement of an acoustic piano.

At the time of my birthday, I was doing a lot of reading about Schubert’s Impromptus, pretending this was “research” for my (still unpublished!) novel ‘Facing the Music’. (Looking back, I realise the writing and “research” was a kind of displacement activity, self-preservation against a tide of confusing emotions.) The Impromptus have a special significance for the hero of my book – a young concert pianist poised on the cusp of a brilliant career until the First World War cruelly intervenes – and each one connects him to particular people or events in his life. It is significant that in his first concert after the war is over he plays the Impromptus as a way of reaffirming these connections and celebrating life and love.

Of course, in reality these late piano pieces of Schubert, together with the D935 Impromptus and the final three sonatas, are the works of a man who almost certainly knew the end was near. Dying from (probably) syphilis, these works, composed during a remarkable outpouring of late masterpieces, display many emotions, from anger and defiance (the D958 Sonata in C minor) to resignation and valediction (the last Sonata in B-flat, D960). The Impromptus are in many ways miniature versions of these big works: full of variety, containing a broad sweep of emotions from the chillingly bare G which opens the first of the D899 set to serenity of the third in G-flat and the final, life-affirming cadence in A-flat major of the fourth Impromptu.

The Fantasie in F minor, D940, which opens «Resonance de l’Originaire», was composed in 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life, and is written for four hands (two pianists at one piano). It has a four-part structure, not unlike a sonata, but the “movements” run into one another with stylistic bridges between each. Schubert had already explored the Fantasy form in his Wanderer Fantasie D760, a bravura work full of heroism and energy. By contrast, the opening motif of the D940 is elegaic and wistful, a distant horn call accompanied by murmurings in the lower register. In the hands of the pianists on this recording, the mood is melancholy, almost desperately tragic, yet tinged with great tenderness. Typically of Schubert, the mood soon takes a volte face with a new, more hopeful motif in the lower register, and throughout the work there are contrasting shifts of mood from poignant and heart-rending to dramatic, longing, intimate, charming and dance-like, and characteristic shifts between minor and major. The textures, shared between the two pianists, give the work an inner richness, and the reprise of the first theme is a touching reminder of the work’s underlying sadness.

This piece has, on occasion, reduced me to tears, not least for its connection to my emotional crisis mentioned above. When I was fortunate enough to hear it performed live by the artists on this disc, during Maria Joao Pires’ memorable Wigmore Hall residency in 2007, I think I wept throughout the entire performance, moved not only by the music itself, but also the fact that I was in the presence of an artist whom I greatly admired and respected (and continue to).

The other work for four hands on this double cd recording is the Rondo in D951, which provides a delightful salve after the emotional impact of the D940. Maria Joao Pires also plays one of the earlier sonatas, the genial D664 in A, while Ricardo Castro opens the second disc with the D784 in A minor, which shares some of the same emotional territory as the D940 in its sombre opening statement and dramatic Beethovenian gestures throughout the first movement. The final work on the disc is the Allegro in A minor, D947 “Lebensstürme”, also for four hands.

Musically and emotionally Pires and Castro seemed conjoined in the works for four hands on this album, while Pires’ solo performance in the Sonata in A is tender and delicately shaded. (This was more than borne out in their live performances at the Wigmore in 2007.) I haven’t listened to this recording for a long time: for a while, I found it just too painful, but when I decided to launch my new series ‘Music Notes’, it was the one thing I knew I wanted to write about. Listening now, with the benefit of 8 years of hindsight, life experience, this blog, two music Diplomas under my belt, a thriving and popular piano teaching practice, my concert and exhibition reviewing, and many other exciting and stimulating musical and writing activities, I have enjoyed the album for what it is: a sensitive and passionate reading of some of Schubert’s finest music for piano.

Maria Joao Pires returns to the Wigmore Hall later this year for a series of ‘Artist Portrait’ concerts to mark her 70th birthday.