Adam Chamber Music Festival,Nelson

Pianissimo: Piano Duos by Mozart, Bizet, Barber, Rachmaninov

Michel Houstoun, Diedre Irons, Richard Mapp, Emma Sayers

Nelson School of Music Sunday, 25 January

The evening concert was absolutely the essential stuff of a music festival; these performances, of great music, would have excited audiences at great European festivals like Verbier or La Roque d’Anthéron.

The Nelson audience was certainly conscious that it had witnessed something momentous as they clapped and shouted at the end of Rachmaninov’s long and strenuous Suite No 2 for two pianos, Op 17. Nothing could have been less apposite that the concert’s title, Pianissimo. I have sometimes wondered whether this dense and mighty work that emerges as if from one mighty instrument, would reveal more interesting interplay if the pianos were widely separated. The performance by Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons was monumental in its energy and power and in its near perfect ensemble; that alone is a singular achievement in such a piece.

Mozart’s Sonata in D for two pianos, K 448, which is also one of his great masterpieces, had opened the concert; it was played by Diedre Irons and Richard Mapp with Emma Sayers and Michael Houstoun in the humble role of page-turners. If the declamatory and extrovert outer movements were witness to Mozart’s self-confidence and his powerful creativity, the mature and profound slow movement was not only impressive in its unanimity and singular ensemble, but deeply felt, suggesting long gestation on the part of the players.

The concert was given a special quality through the use of projections from above of the players at the two keyboards on to screens at the back of the stage. Without distracting attention from the music, the images seemed to provide an insight into the sensuous intimacy that the strange phenomenon of the piano duet offers.

Nowhere was this slightly intrusive insight more delightful than the performance by Mapp and Sayers of Samuel Barber’s duet, Souvenirs, Op 28, involving a great deal of overlapping of hands, one often on top of the other or chasing each other the length of the keyboard.

Perhaps the most delicious, and to many, surprising piece was Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, every bit as serious music as Mozart or Schumann. This was at the hands of Michael and Diedre at one keyboard and they revealed the uncelebrated genius of Bizet as piano composer. For Bizet’s death at 35 (the same age as Mozart) was a terrible loss not just to opera, but to piano and orchestral music, and probably chamber music too. The music itself is filled with spontaneity and rich invention, but it needs a joyous and boisterous performance such as we heard here to demonstrate just how fecund was Bizet’s melodic imagination and his sense of shape and style.

The following evening (26 January) the same pianists returned for more; this time the emphasis was on aural spectacle, some, like Mark Wilberg’s Fantasy on Themes from Carmen frankly vacuous pyrotechnics, others – Saint-Saëns’s Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (from the Trio of Sonata Op 31 No 2) and Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini of some musical worth. John Rimmer’s Hammerheads, a 2008 work commissioned for four talented young Nelson pianists, was frankly astonishing.

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