Classical Music Review: Two Pianists Together

Reviewed By Caldwell Titcomb

Richard Goode

Pianist Richard Goode

Solo piano recitals occur all the time, but concerts by duo-pianists are not common these days. The Celebrity Series filled the gap on February 7 when Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss teamed up for a Jordan Hall program of music for piano duet and for two pianos.

In the last century there were three main pairs of duo-pianists who enjoyed successful careers. The husband-and-wife pair of Bartlett and Robinson (Ethel and Rae) began wide touring in the 1920s. Then came another married couple, Vronsky and Babin (Vitya and Victor), followed by Gold and Fizdale (Arthur and Robert), who until the early eighties commissioned and premiered quite a few new works (by Barber, Milhaud, Poulenc, and others). In recent years perhaps the outstanding pair has been Noël Lee (b. 1924) and Christian Ivaldi (b. 1938)—centered in Paris—who have played and recorded a large amount of the repertory for four hands.

Goode (b. 1943) and his protégé Biss (b. 1980), both of whom have solo careers, decided to join forces in 2008 for occasional concerts in London and the United States; and the program they played here was the same they have offered elsewhere.

The two present quite a contrast visually. Goode is short, chubby, white-haired, and sits still at the keyboard; Biss is tall, thin, black-haired, and indulges in a lot of bobbing and weaving. But the sounds they make are generally precise and well-matched.

They opened with Schubert, who wrote a great deal of music for piano duet since cultured households back then had a piano that the inhabitants were expected to learn to play. This time, with Biss playing treble, we heard a late piece from 1828, the Allegro in A-Minor, D. 947—which after the composer’s death a publisher labeled “Lebensstürme” (“Storms of Life”). This is a big, sonata-form work, which surprised one with a number of startling changes of key.

Pianist Jonathan Biss

Pianist Jonathan Biss

Next came Schumann’s Six Studies for Pedal Piano in Canon Form, Op. 56, written in 1845. The pedal piano was an ordinary instrument to which was attached a keyboard to be played by the feet—like a pipe organ. These date from a time when Schumann was exploring contrapuntal technique, and the final B-major piece even has some fugal writing. Goode and Biss performed these etudes in an arrangement for two pianos made in 1891 by Claude Debussy—the only way one is likely to hear them today.

The first half ended with Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” Op. 134. This began as the 1826 finale to the late, B-flat string quartet, Op. 130. Beethoven then detached it as a separate work for quartet, Op. 133. When another musician arranged it for piano, Beethoven was unhappy with the result and penned his own version for piano duet with its own opus number. To facilitate playing the intricate writing, Goode (treble) and Biss (bass) chose to sit at two pianos. This monster of a piece still astonishes as an avant-garde work. A piano performance cannot match the original medium. The work needs the sense of four stringed instruments effortfully straining to cope with music almost beyond the boundary of playability. On the piano it strikes one as too easy.

After intermission came Stravinsky’s ballet “Agon” (1953-57) for 12 dancers, premiered by the New York City Ballet with choreography by George Balanchine. The ballet (whose title is Greek for “contest”) has no story but consists of 16 abstract numbers. This is a transitional work in which portions of it adopt the Schoenbergian 12-tone system. For purposes of rehearsal, Stravinsky made a two-piano reduction of the orchestral score, which is what we heard here in an adept performance. In the Bransle Gay movement, Biss turned from the piano to a pair of castanets. One was glad to hear this major work, though one missed the harp, mandolin, tom-tom, timpani, and xylophone in the full version.

The players ended the concert with Debussy’s wonderful “En Blanc et Noir” (1915) for two pianos, which came across splendidly. The first movement (dedicated to the conductor, Serge Koussevitzky) bustles with activity and is marked “passionately.” The composer, deeply affected by World War I, dedicated the second movement to the memory of his friend Lt. Jacques Charlot, who was killed on March 3; marked “slow, sombre,” Debussy wove into the texture phrases from the Lutheran chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”). The finale contains bits redolent of Stravinsky, who was the movement’s dedicatee.

As an encore, the pair appropriately played “Abendlied” (“Evening Song”), the final number from Schumann’s “Twelve Piano-Duet Pieces for Small and Big Children,” Op. 85 (1849). This has an incredibly beautiful melody (played by Biss), simply but gorgeously harmonized. Often played by organists, it was in 1852 set again by Schumann as the last of a set of six songs, Op. 107. It was nice to have these sounds in mind while exiting into the evening air.

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