Duettists’ mercy-dash: Old St.Paul’s Lunchtime Concert Series

A Concert of Works for Piano Duet
Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp
MOZART – Sonata in F Major K.497
RAVEL – Mother Goose Suite
BRAHMS – Three Hungarian Dances

Old St.Paul’s, Wellington, Tuesday August 18th, 2009

The advertised concert – “From Russia With Love”: Russian Piano Duets,  played by Svetlana Kalinnikova and Irene Lau – had to be cancelled because of the illness of one of the duettists; so at short notice Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp stepped into the breach. The latter pair had played the programme’s items on a number of previous occasions in recital, so they felt able to get things up to speed within the short preparation time remaining. The result was a great success, making handsome amends for any disappointment people might have felt at being deprived of the original concert.

The recital began with the most substantial of Mozart’s several works for piano four hands, the F Major Sonata K.497, written in Vienna in 1786. Mozart had not written any such music for a dozen years as he no longer had his sister Nannerl at hand as a duet partner, but he may have been freshly inspired either by the brilliance of the young Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who had lessons with him at that time, or the charms of one Franziska von Jacquin, the sister of another of Mozart’s pupils and a fine pianist. This Sonata , described by one commentator as “an almost uncomfortably great piece of domestic music”, is symphonic in scale and operatic in manner, featuring an introductory Adagio richly laden with a sense of expectation, and an Allegro which colourfully and wittily advances the argument. Sayers and Mapp had the knack of patiently enabling the music to unfold and generate its own natural momentum, while making the most of the character of the different episodes, such as the Hungarian flavour found in the development section’s rich modulations, and the teasing interplay between the duettists at the end of the movement.

In the slow movement the Old St.Paul’s grand piano’s bass notes added a distinctive (almost authentic-sounding) twang to the musical argument’s colour and interest, especially in the florid passages at the end of the movement. Sayers and Mapp relished the contrapuntal exchanges and modulatory swerves in the finale, taking considerable pleasure in both melodies and accompaniments and conveying both the playful and mock-serious aspects of the adventure’s experience to their delighted listeners.

Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) is one of those magical manifestations of child-like innocence and awareness refracted through the acutest adult sensibility. Sayers and Mapp kept things on the move throughout the different scenes, almost always to the music’s advantage, except, I felt, for “Hop o’ my Thumb”, whose exquisitely crafted archways of wonderment weren’t allowed enough room at the climax of the melody for the music to glow and tug on our heart-strings. Nor did I think the birds were given sufficient ambient space for their song to register the forest’s loneliness, and the scene to work its full enchantment. This said, everything else was exquisitely realized, from the exotic ritual of the Chinese Empress Laideronnette’s bath, through the interaction of Beauty’s tenderness and her Beast’s growling tones (again, twangily caught by the piano’s bass strings), to the final scene’s magical dawn-lit Fairy Garden’s awakening, Emma Sayers’ brilliant glissandi at the conclusion capping the wonderment of it all, and catching the enchantment and rapture envisaged by the composer.

Three Hungarian Dances by Brahms rounded off the programme, the first of which here, and probably the most well-known, the Fifth in F-sharp Minor from Book One, received a terrific performance, involving split-second teamwork timing and intuition, obviously the result of Sayers and Mapp knowing each other’s playing really well. The other two dances I didn’t know, but each was dispatched with a good deal of style, the players finding the right balance between purposefulness and high spirits, and generating plenty of excitement with which to conclude a splendid presentation.

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