Magazine article The Spectator

Music: London Piano Festival

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: London Piano Festival

Article excerpt

If two concert pianists are performing a work written for two grand pianos, there are two ways you can position the instruments. They can sit side by side, an arrangement known as 'twin beds'. Or they can be slotted together so the performers face each other. That's called a '69'.

When Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich play together, they opt for twin beds. Appropriately, you might think, since they're divorced -- but really it's because Kovacevich insists on sitting so low that Argerich can't see his head if she's opposite him. With everyone else she prefers a 69, as do most pianists: it's easier to make eye contact.

And that's crucial, because it's no joke trying to synchronise with a duo partner when your own part is monstrously difficult. No wonder the two-piano repertoire is neglected.

Indeed, it might have disappeared by now if Martha Argerich hadn't decided, more than 30 years ago, that she was too nervous to play solo in public. (Ironic, when you consider that she possesses the world's most impregnable technique; if only similar jitters would silence one or two overrated celebrity pianists.)

Instead, she enticed musicians of the calibre of Kovacevich, Nelson Freire and Daniel Barenboim into joining her in arrangements of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Ravel's La valse -- plus the handful of masterpieces originally written for the medium, such as Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major K 448, Brahms's St Anthony Variations and Rachmaninov's Second Suite.

Some of the most rewarding two-piano works are reductions of orchestral scores -- though perhaps 'reduction' is the wrong word. Losing the orchestration can give you more of the music. The Rite of Spring is every bit as barbarous in the hands of Argerich and Barenboim as it is under the baton of Boulez; it's just that the dissonances are spelled out differently. And if you want to make sense of Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica, first try Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch in Otto Singer's transcription, which strips away the special effects to uncover a forceful argument. Then hear what Furtwängler does with it.

None of this is to be confused with music for four hands on one piano. That has its own repertoire, dominated by Schubert, and its own magic: it can be enchanting to hear two voices singing from the same keyboard. …

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