Impressive recital by piano duettists at St Andrew’s

The Pangea Piano Project (Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez: piano duet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts
Dvořák: Slavonic Dance, Op 46 No 1; Tolga Zafer Özdemir: Mesopotamia Suite; Liszt: Après une lecture du Dante; Ligeti: Sonatina; Guastavino: Romance del Plata; Jack Body: Three Rhythmics

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 18 March, 7.30pm

What was revealed in the leaflet advertising this highly enjoyable series at St Andrew’s hardly covered the reality. The names of neither of the two pianists were familiar, nor were two of the composers, though the name Guastavino might have rung bells. The two pianists have played together for several years, and are currently staff pianists at the University of Auckland School of Music.

However, Liszt’s Dante Sonata should have been enough to draw a crowd – Ya-Ting Liou’s performance was highly impressive – and there was the pleasurable certainty of one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, played in its original form.

But there was also real delight in the four other pieces, all of which demonstrated the pianists’ adventurous taste, but most importantly their ear for contemporary music with a human face.

Tolga Zafer Özdemir is a young Turkish composer who in his Mesopotamia Suite makes a successful and attractive fusion of Middle Eastern and western European musical traditions. In one of his several interesting spoken offerings, Blas Gonzalez suggested Anatolian musical references, though the title would seem at odds with that: I am in no position to compare the musical characteristics of the Turkish heartland (Özdemir was born in Ankara in 1975) with that of the Arabs in what is now Irak. This piece, for one pianist, played by Gonzalez himself, was a splendid demonstration of his musical sensibility, keeping easy control of the fast and irregular rhythms and the quick-silver dynamic changes. It’s a delightful and arresting piece: fast, with strong though irregular rhythms in the first movement; a pensive quality in the second, with sharp dynamic contrasts between calm arpeggios in the left hand and sprays of brilliant notes in the right, hints of Ravel and Bartók; and a strikingly attractive last movement with fast, repeated, staccato motifs.

Ligeti’s Sonatina, for piano duet, was the second piece in the programme involving both pianists (after the Dvořák Slavonic Dance) which confirmed the pair’s singular accomplishment and superb ensemble. It was written in his early years, still in communist Hungary (he escaped to Cologne in 1956) and in a style acceptable to the regime; regardless of the artistic restrictions, Ligeti produced a piece that could hardly be mistaken for music of an earlier era. Yet for today’s ears it comes as a refreshing relief from much of the avant-garde music that Ligeti was eager to immerse himself in. There were tunes; the three movements were quite short, employing a palette recalling the French neo-classicists.

Gonsález remarked that Carlos Guastavino (1912 – 2000) was probably the third best-known Argentinian composer after Ginastera and Piazzola. Though his music is tonal, relatively ‘conservative’, its flavour is nevertheless distinctly mid 20th century. Underneath the charm and ease of Romance del Plata lies an individuality and integrity, the last movement in distinctly Latin American rhythms. In three movements, it proved a highly effective piece for four hands.

Jack Body’s Three Rhythmics has become something of a calling-card for the duo and while they played from the score, it was the product of obvious painstaking and conscientious work, in which I’m sure the composer would have delighted, such was the brilliance and command of their playing.

I first heard this piece – I think it was the premiere – at the October 1987 Sonic Circus, the last of the Jack Body-inspired 12-hour marathons, midday to midnight, of around 60 concerts and recitals of New Zealand music in every corner of the Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre. At the very start of my reviewing career with The Evening Post, I shared its coverage with my predecessor Owen Jensen; for me it was a fairly overwhelming introduction to much New Zealand music with which I was at that stage unfamiliar.

Three Rhythmics was played by the late Diane Cooper and Dan Poynton. I remembered it with some wonderment because it made such an impact then, and this performance by an Argentinian and a Taiwanese pianist astonished me again. It was a riot of complex rhythms delivered through twenty fingers working at lightning speed; it is an exciting minor masterpiece of which, above all, they made vivid musical sense.

The two main-stream works in the programme were Dvořák’s first Slavonic Dance, which emerged in illuminating and rhythmic clarity, sufficient to encourage one to seek out recordings of all 16 dances in original piano duet format.

And Liszt’s Dante Sonata (Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi una sonata; note the correct translation of lecture: ‘Reading’), as I said at the beginning, was a treat; sadly, not nearly as much played as the B minor sonata. From the very opening, Ya-Ting Liou’s playing was powerful and dramatic yet highly poetic; not too heavily pedaled but with all the density and force called for through the opening phase of this evocation of the Inferno from La commedia divina. Though described as ‘strange, confused and passionate’ (Searle) it can be a spell-binding piece; Liou handled the romantic, Chopinesque middle part with limpid clarity, showing a keen dramatic sense as the excitement grew through astutely handled crescendi and accelerations.

The Liszt was very much of a part with the entire recital, which could be regarded as an adventurous and highly successful exploration of some of the extremes of the Romantic piano world and some aspects of its survival in the present age.

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