Confirming that Live Classical Music is Back, the Melbourne Recital Centre managed to schedule two concerts that overlapped in terms of timeframe and potential audience. For those reluctantly forgoing an enticing program of Mendelssohn and Bartók by Rathdowne Quartet, KIAZMA Piano Duo’s pairing of Shostakovich and Harrison proved irresistible.
Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata have been dazzling audiences with their virtuosic technical skills, musicality and thoughtful programming for several years now, and this concert was no exception. Bathed in a fiery glow, the stage was appropriately set for some sizzling Shostakovich. Both pianists appeared at the beginning of the concert, but it was Kawabata who played Five Preludes for piano (1919) while Go sat quietly at the second piano. A perky percussive Allegro began the series of contrasting miniature movements encompassing playful and meditative characteristics. These Preludes also acted as a suitable prelude to the meat of the concert.
As a precocious sixteen-year-old, Shostakovich composed his Suite for two pianos, Op. 6 (1922) in response to the death of his father. Almost thirty minutes long, some critics have found fault with its repetitiveness and lack of development. It is true, that the broad tolling theme that dominates the opening Prelude – in the foreground or as a kind of inescapable idée fixe – and recurs in the three subsequent movements, becomes insistent, but it is equally a chilling reflection of the composer’s state of mind as he finds himself, his mother and his older sister in quite frightening financial and political circumstances. In the hands of gifted pianists, the effect is a dramatic accumulation of emotional energy. After the surprising vitality of the Fantastic Dance – no mourning bells there – the Nocturne brought some extraordinarily orchestral-sounding blending as the two pianos merged in an almost Romantic outpouring until the tolling prevailed once more. The two pianists displayed impressive coordination in the Finale, at one in the rhythmic, tonal and dynamic variations.
Kawabata completed the set of Shostakovich’s early piano works with deft readings of Three Fantastic Dances, Op. 5 (1920). Again, these were miniature pieces that revealed an appealing lightness of touch and sense of humour on her part.
Pianistic fireworks were taken to a new level with the world premiere of Crunch by Holly Harrison, an emerging composer with an international reputation. She has already received many commissions and awards and was the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence across 2020 and 2021. It was an intriguing piece of programming to juxtapose piano works by a young Russian with those composed almost exactly one hundred years later by a young Australian.
Sitting close together on separate piano stools, Kawabata and Go launched Crunch with an emphatic stamp. Then they (and we) were off on an exciting ride of five uninterrupted movements of rhythmic intensity. The work draws inspiration from honky-tonk, blues, punk and grunge music, its title referring to dissonance and rhythmic punch, explored in a variety of settings for four-hand piano. Harrison’s background as a percussionist is evident in the way she employs the percussiveness and physicality of the piano. In her informative program note she describes how each movement “experiments with a different thread or imagining of ‘crunch’”. Fiercely plucked piano strings, extremes of register, a dueling relationship between the duo, guitar twang, slouching grunge feel, led to a final celebratory movement. It was inventive, witty and invested with thrilling rhythmic dynamism and momentum. And Go and Kawabato were in their perfectly synchronized virtuosic element.
For any member of the audience unfamiliar with Harrison’s work, this concert was something of a revelation. There is no doubt that we will be hearing much more from her.
Heather Leviston reviewed KIAZMA Piano Duo: Shostakovich and Harrison, performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre on December 7, 2021.