Sayers and Mapp, varied and delightful piano duets at Waikanae

Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp (piano duet)

Music by Thomas Tomkins, Mozart, Schubert. Ravel, Kenneth Young, Barber and Poulenc

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 20 May, 2.30pm

A concert of piano duets (four hands on one piano) is likely to raise discussion about the propriety of arrangements and the voicing of opinions about the merits of an orchestral arrangement of a piece for piano four hands (or two hands, for that matter).

As it happens, most of the music at this concert was originally written for four hands though two were later orchestrated for a ballet.

The opening piece was a small surprise from the Stuart period when the keyboard – harpsichord, clavichord, virginals, etc – was being used increasingly as a solo instrument, most notably exemplified in Fitzwilliam’s ‘virginal book’ published in the 19th century.

According to the programme note, Thomas Tomkins’s piece, A Fancy, ‘for two to play’, is probably the first surviving piece for two players at one keyboard. It started quietly giving the impression that the composer was really thinking of only one player, but soon its various layers emerged to justify its treatment by more than one player.

Mozart wrote several sonatas and other pieces for two pianists on either one or two keyboards. This, in F major, K 497, was not one of the best known, and in spite of Emma Sayer’s promoting it as echoing the spirit of the operas that he was writing at the time – The Marriage of Figaro and The Impresario – it isn’t really furnished with the memorable and characterful tunes that made them famous.

They played the opening Adagio cautiously, and there was even a feeling of holding back as the Allegro got under way. The air of hesitancy derived more from the music than the players; in spite of the outwardly lively tunes, and it struck me that Mozart was compensating for a slightly lower level of inspiration by adorning it with decoration and unexpected modulations.

The same feeling lingered in the Andante second movement: interesting rather than beguiling, yet we heard a performance that was well rehearsed, with attractive dynamic and tempo changes. The finale offered more lively music, the two players sporting with each other, exploiting chances to surprise, offering nothing that was routine, and ultimately leaving no room for doubt that the composer was Mozart in his masterly maturity.

Schubert’s Allegro in A minor, thought to be the first movement of a never completed sonata, was entitled by the publisher, Lebensstürme – ‘life’s storms’. It is no 947 in the Deutsch catalogue, which is immediately after the much better known, three Klavierstücke. It deserves to be as well known for it has real strength and dramatic shape as well as having a perfectly enchanting middle section. Stormy is the way it opened but the storm soon passed; it was interesting melodically as well as developing in ways that were typical of Schubert. There’s an underlying swaying rhythm that characterises a beguiling melody before the music returns to the arresting minor key, fanfare-like motif with which it opened.

Though there were charms of rhythm and lyricism that I felt were not totally realised, this performance was persuasive enough to make me pursue the piece further. If you Google ‘Lebensstürme’ and ‘Schubert’ you will find several You-Tube video clips of performances. One which captivated me was by the Georgian twins, Ani and Nia Salkhanishvili at the San Marino Piano Competition.

Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye was written for girls, obviously highly talented, for it’s not particularly easy.  The question whether the original duet version or the orchestral version is to be preferred exercises many people; for my part, I’m seduced by both as soon one or the other starts. This duo approached it fastidiously, the wit and charm discreetly obscured, to be smiled at by others than those who respond only to the gross and obvious in humour. They played it as one, approaching the rise and fall of dynamics exquisitely and making much of the playful turns in treble passages in ‘Hop o’ my thumb’. The suite ended with the droll sleight of hand found in the last phrase of ‘The fairy garden’.

Kenneth Young’s Variations on a Prayer is based on an original chorale-like tune, according to the programme note, which went on to explain that it “explored the nature of prayer, which can take many different forms in pursuit of a universal goal”. It is the sort of comment that seems more likely to come from a composer than a writer of programme notes, but the notes later speak of Young in the third person, linking his musical character with Dutilleux and Takemitsu. In any case, Young’s music finds its way successfully between the rigours of the complex avant-garde and the indulgently melodic and sentimental, and the performance situated it without apology in the company of the early 20th century pieces in the programme.

The recital ended with another two pieces I hadn’t come across before: Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs and Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Duet (of 1918, and so very early).

The three pieces taken from Souvenirs, a suite of six movements, Op 28 of 1951, were Schottische, Pas de deux and Hesitation-Tango. Though originally written for piano four hands, Barber also arranged it for solo piano, for two pianos and then he orchestrated it for a ballet which was first performed in 1955.  The Schottische has a jazzy quality in quick 3/8 rhythm; then a slow Pas de deux that exemplified the nostalgic aspect of these Souvenirs, and the Hesitation-Tango, (a take, I suppose, on the once-popular Hesitation Waltz that I recall from college dancing classes), slightly reminiscent of Prokofiev with wisps of a big tune that proved evanescent, and leading us into the here and now.

The Poulenc sonata would, one might think, be performed along with the sonatas he wrote for wind instruments near the end of his life, but this one, written at 19, was contemporaneous with the well-known Mouvements perpetuels . well before his ballet, Les Biches, which put him on the map in 1924. One could hear why it’s not so well known, though it’s not inconsequential, and the duo found its varied character, the dense chords in dotted rhythms of the Prélude, the improvisatory interlude called Rustique, and the speedy, staccato Final that was perhaps going nowhere, but gave the impression of generating much energy in doing so.

This enchanting recital made me realise how much pleasure is to be found in the piano duet repertoire. Mapp and Sayers have been playing together for a few years and their performances deserve to be more frequent and widely enjoyed.


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