An exhilarating piano duet concert from Duo Harmonics at St Andrew’s

Duo Harmonics: Nicole Chao and Beth Chen – piano duo

Mozart: Sonata for four hands in D Major, KV 381
Rachmaninov: Six Morceaux Op. 11
Ravel: La Valse  (transcription for piano four hands)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 30 September, 12:15 pm

Duo Enharmonics, the Nicole Chao and Beth Chen piano duo team, have become regular performers at the St Andrew’s lunch time concerts. This year they offered a journey from a graceful Mozart Sonata of 1765 through Rachmaninov’s nostalgic Russian group of six pieces of 1894, to the grand spectacular duo piano arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse of 1920.

The Mozart Sonata in D Major, KV.381 is a very early work, written by Mozart to perform with his sister Nanerl  on their tour in London. He was nine years old, and the piece is the earliest known piece for four hands. It was written to display the technical virtuosity of the children, with cascading fast passages. It is not a profound work, but it has its charm. Chao and Chen tackled it with great energy and brilliance, probably exactly what is required. They didn’t try to make the work sound deeper than it is. This is a charming, youthful composition, showy and easy on the ear.

Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux Op 11 is also a youthful work. It is a collection of six pieces in different genre. The opening, Barcarolle is dark and mysterious with a dazzling climax and powerful chords. The Scherzo that follows is sprightly and brilliant with a relentless rhythmic drive. The Russian theme is a set of variations on a folk-song like theme, beautiful and haunting. The Waltz is very much in the Rachmaninov idiom, a waltz indeed, but very different from those of Chopin and the fashionable Viennese waltzes.  The fifth piece, Romance, is a passionate  work with a poignant principal theme. The final piece, Slava (Glory), is a dramatic set of variations on a Russian chant that Moussorgsky also used in Boris Godunov and in the Pictures at an Exhibition. We are here on true Russian soil. These were played with charm, sensitivity, and depth.

Ravel’s La Valse was originally conceived as a ballet, but it is better known as an orchestral concert work, which was transcribed for a piano duet and later for four hands. It is a powerful work. Capturing the rich sound of a symphony orchestra puts great demands on the pianists. Ravel wrote this music in the wake of the First World War. Although he denied that there was any deeper meaning in the work then what the music itself revealed, it is tempting to hear in the deconstructed waltz theme, in the occasional harsh chords, a tragic allusion to the destruction of the Second Empire, or the gemütlich charming era of pre-war Vienna, or indeed, of the lost pre-war world. There are also riotous cynical passages. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen played with great energy and force, without losing sight of the coherence of the work.

This was a long journey from the seemingly orderly world of the young Mozart that the concert started with to the ruins of a whole epoch at the end of the Great War. Not only was the concert thoroughly enjoyable, it was also a musical tour of the musical world of a century and a half.  Nicole Chao and Beth Chen piano proved to be an outstanding team coping very ably with the  difficult medium of four hands on one keyboard. They played with unanimity as well as virtuosity.


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