From Australia, for ten hands and two pianos

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Published: 23rd January, 2017

Of course that heading is a cheat, an attention grabber which nevertheless is a correct representation of the music I have here to review. I recently received  a single CD, and a collection of four discs, all of them piano music for four hands, all with the strongest Australian connections possible.

Percy Grainger: Complete Music for Four Hands, Two Pianos;                                              Penelope Thwaites, John Lavender, Timothy Young                                                                           HERITAGE HGTCD403 94 Four CD collection

Songs of Home: Australian Music For Piano Duo And Duet: Bonnie Brown & LouisaBreen. Details https://www.brownandbreen.com/

Regular visitor to Melbourne, (and having been educated here) UK-born pianist Penelope Thwaites is a world authority, if not the world authority, on the music of Percy Grainger. She has lectured here and overseas, is based in the UK and has written extensively to illuminate the work of one of Australia’s most famous composers. Thwaites has recorded most of Grainger’s work and her CD collection for Heritage recently added a fourth disc to complete the composer’s work “for four hands, two pianos”. With Thwaites are the pianists John Lavender or Timothy Young. (That accounts for six of the hands!)

Just to be clear: if a four hand work is for one piano, it is a duet. If for two pianos, it is a duo. Thwaites says: “All ours are duos (one or two were written for one piano but we elected to play them on two.)

“For us the resonance of two soundboards makes for a fuller richer sound, and in creating together one texture there is endless opportunity for pianistic dialogue as well as exciting united momentum when required.”

By chance, my other review is of two Australian pianists whose CD does include a quite long work by Grainger, but also represents four-hand works by five additional Australian composers. Appropriately, the CD is titled Songs of Home as pianists Louisa Breen and Bonnie Brown have enjoyed successful tours overseas as well as in their native Australia. The imaginative choice of works suits their blended style of performance, particularly emphasising the lightness of touch that adds to the accessibility of these works.

The first two items are by Peter Sculthorpe, with the overall heading Island Songs. Collaboration with didgeridoo player Russell Smith establishes the Australianness of the sound. Following the opening call of the didgeridoo, reverberating as a low note, it seems, a single piano tentatively explores a simple melody in Song of Home. Only the range of this melody suggests there are two pianos, not just one, so integrated is the sound. This long work is succeeded by one that is one minute longer (Lament and Yearning) but has the same solemnity. It establishes the rapport between the pianists before the next work, A Flight of Songbirds by Ross Edwards. The ten short movements – all well executed – are named for the tempi, from the opening delicate but sparkling Energico to the final, more insistent Vivace, with the slowest, Poco lento, a gentle, sweet minute or so of harmonious sound.

A difficulty with piano duets can be that, where reviews of solo pianists aim to identify and describe the distinctive style of each, in a successful duet or duo performance the listener can not really be sure where each part begins and ends! The work, Oscillations, by Nigel Westlake, makes this clearer with the secondo pianist having a heavy reiterated chord throughout. The primo contribution begins as an “accent”, and never quite wrests attention from its partner. Nevertheless this 10-minute work is a showcase for both pianists.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s Re-Inventions, arranged for two pianos, pays homage to Bach, being based on two of his Inventions. Delicacy is needed from the pianists, as the counterpoint is articulated by both. A female composer from earlier times, Miriam Hyde, (1913-2005) has the honour of concluding the recording, with the appropriately titled, Toccata for Two. Well chosen for the finale, this work is dramatic and fast, and shows Brown and Breen enjoy technical brilliance as well as the empathy on which this fine recording rests.

Percy Grainger is represented on Songs of Home by his Porgy and Bess Fantasy, after George Gershwin, a complex and varied work allowed by its length of nearly 20 minutes. It is a tribute to Brown and Breen that their version of this work compares favourably with that of Penelope Thwaites and John Lavender on the third disc in the collection of Grainger’s “complete music for four hands, two pianos”. Lavender is the co-pianist on the first three CDs and, with Thwaites on the fourth volume, the hands belong to Timothy Young, currently head of Piano and Chamber Music at ANAM). As previously noted, the very nature of two-piano work makes it as difficult to distinguish between the performers, as it often is to identify musicians playing in an orchestra – other than the soloists!

There are many approaches to this latest in Thwaites’ massive achievement, recording over 260 tracks of Grainger’s music thus far (besides her editorship of The New Percy Grainger Companion, last year with a new edition in paperback). The most obvious starting points are those duos that are original compositions (some adapted from solo works) and those that are arrangements of other people’s works. Then there’s the question of influences on Grainger (other composers, national styles) and the famous revivals of folksongs. Chronology is another consideration, of course, and another might be the length and structure of the works. Grainger’s highly charged life and relationships might also play a part, although the extensive program notes put these in context and thankfully avoid claims that are not strictly borne out by the music.

My interest is in the “listenability” of the compositions, particularly when presented in such quantity. Simply put, can the undeniable charm of Grainger’s work (and the excellence of these recordings) hold the listener for about five hours at a stretch? I have not put the duos to the test at one sitting, but I have sampled many of them, and find myself entranced by this form of Grainger’s composition. If the notes appear to spring from the piano when Thwaites plays (as I have previously remarked in reviewing her concerts), then the contribution of Lavender or Young intensifies the resonance as it swells the sound.

Old favourites such as Handel in the Strand are as bright and crisp as ever, while longer works like Warsaw Concerto (the last work on Disc 4) are given orchestral scope. Some so much that a radio colleague of mine, an aficionado of British orchestral music, professed himself “blown away” by the sound of The Children’s March on Disc 2, which is packed with variety, including such favourites as Harvest Hymn, and Blithe Bells, which amazingly combines a well-known melody by Bach and “Gershwinesque harmonies” according to the program notes. Having two pianos at work evidently allowed for full exploitation of this idea, as one was devoted to reiteration of Bach’s theme while the other surrounded it with beautiful but contrasting sounds.

For something new, I took Thwaites’ suggestion and listened to the Three Symphonic Dances by Cyril Scott arranged by Grainger. As with all the works in the collection the music is pleasing, but more than that: the notes and stories of Grainger’s choices illuminate the works. One of the disadvantages of “streaming” is missing the background stories! This is a collection to devote a weekend to, to allow for reading as well as listening.

With either the Thwaites collection, or the newer CD by Brown & Breen, I find I enjoy equally sitting and concentrating on some of the works or simply playing a couple of the CDs as the background to an afternoon’s work. Review CDs come and go but these five are treasured additions to my collection.

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The hands in the image belong to pianists Louisa Breen and Bonnie Brown.