Splendid piano-four-hands recital crowned by the Schubert Fantasie in F minor: Emma Sayers and Rachel Thomson

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Piano Duo: Emma Sayers and Rachel Thomson

Arensky: Six Children’s Pieces, Op 34
David Hamilton: Five New Zealand Characters
Schubert: Fantasie in F minor, Op 103

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 4 March, 12:15 pm

Here was a charming and admirable lunchtime recital: the ideal recipe for cleansing your emotions and mind of the wild, eccentric experiences of this year’s Festival: in my case a Kopernikus and a Mad King in close proximity.

Piano duets can be edgy affairs as they demand a perfection of ensemble that’s called for from hardly any other musicians who play together. Apart from the Schubert, this was not heavy-weight material, but the demands in both the Arensky and the Hamilton were no less great.

Arensky for Children??
Arensky’s Six Children’s Pieces might be somewhat modelled on Schumann’s Op 15, pretending to evoke things that children respond to; but if you look at YouTube you’ll see that Arensky really did have children in mind as performers – not any children, mind you. But most of Schumann’s are not very manageable by children.

The first, Fairy Tale (simply Conte in the original French edition), was a very engaging piece, in three – shall we call them phases? – that started quietly, became a little more bold, and ended boisterously. Charmingly articulated. There was a recognisable, amusing and talented cuckoo, followed by tears (Les larmes) that was gently meditative rather than grief-stricken; I couldn’t stop being impressed by the sequences of big four-handed chords that were so perfectly together. It ended with an unresolved cadence.

The charming Waltz would have been rather more delightful for children to listen to than to play. Then Berceuse – cradle song – that was not particularly hushed, but interestingly varied between the four hands; and finally the Fugue on a Russian Theme, which as you’d expect, introduced the child to the mysteries and sophistication of a fugue. Rachel Thomson spoke about it at the end but I missed much of what she said as the microphone was either not working or set too low.

David Hamilton’s Five New Zealand Characters were comparably charming pieces, quite approachable. Their titles hinted, more or less, at what the music depicted, though I will risk attack from some quarters by doubting the success of music that attempts to conjure the song of the tuatara or the long-tailed bat: neither is particularly audible. However, the defence will be that the pieces don’t pretend to imitate sounds, but rather, an individual’s musical feeling contemplating such creatures. The other three: kiwi, fantail and yellow-eyed penguin (perhaps), conjure sounds. However, the pieces are all individual and perfectly attractive, and though they have the virtue of not employing avant-garde characteristics, they sound distinctly of our own time. One of their charming features was the evocation of Scott Joplinesque sounds to depict the penguin.

Schubert Fantasie in F minor
The major work was probably Schubert’s posthumous Fantasie in F minor which really takes its place among his last three sonatas.  It’s really so comparable to the sonatas, apart from things like the return of the first theme of the opening movement at the start of the last. There are four contrasted movements lasting in total about 18 minutes, of musical substance and inspiration that places it among Schubert’s masterpieces of his last year and probably among the greatest of all works for piano four hands.

This was certainly the reason I didn’t dare miss it and, I like to believe, for the slightly bigger than average audience. It began with the first theme lovingly played by Emma, soon joined in the bass by Rachel, re-handling the first theme. Not only was their playing so careful, so perfect in its thoroughly rehearsed ensemble details, but also in the way it moved into the second movement, Largo. Almost the depth of Beethoven, though Schubert’s ineffable lyricism infuses the whole work so perfectly, that there can be no hint of comparison with Beethoven that might suggest Schubert’s inferiority. The triple time third movement, Allegro vivace, is so happy and so spirited that it’s impossible to believe that the inevitability of death within a few months must have been constantly in Schubert’s mind.

The one very distinct break, a total change of mood, from the sanguinity of the ‘scherzo’ to the seriousness and occasional drama of the last, Allegro molto moderato. I wonder if that puzzles pianists: does ‘molto’ qualify ‘allegro’ or ‘moderato’? Does it mean ‘Molto allegro’, but a bit of moderation, or an ‘Allegro’ tempered by a marked moderation.

In any case, what I really wanted at its end, more than a coffee, was a repeat of the whole thing. I can’t remember when I last heard it live, and wondered whether if the gods brought my fingers back to life, I could be partner in a performance of this divine music.

A wonderful start (for me, as I’ve missed the first two or three) to the year of great lunchtime music from St Andrew’s.  


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