DUO ENHARMONICS Piano Duo – a Blockbuster of a Concert!

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concert Series 2022 presents:

Duo Enharmonics – Nicole Chao and Beth Chen (piano duo)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART – Piano Sonata in D, K.381 (`1772)
FELIX MENDELSSOHN – Andante & Allegro Brilliante Op.92 (1841)
JOHN PSATHAS – Motet (1997)
FAZIL SAY – Night (2017)
IGOR STRAVINSKY – The Rite of Spring (1913)

St,Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 2nd October

A quick look at Middle C on my part brought forth some previous “other” enthusiastic opinions regarding the music-making of Duo Enharmonics, made up of the piano duo of Nicole Chao and Beth Chen (formed in 2017, and whose names are here alphabetically ordered) – to my surprise, I hadn’t actually heard them play before, perhaps confusing my somewhat over-vicarious enjoyment of the reviews of their performances by my colleague Steven Sedley with the “real thing”, and especially in the case of a concert featuring a presentation for four hands of Ravel’s “La Valse”, along with the Mozart Sonata we heard today. (The memory is obviously not what it was…..)

Matters of familiarity with the pair’s playing were put right for me with a vengeance today – I confess the concert’s main drawcard was hearing the Stravinsky work performed on a single piano four-hands! – how, I had asked myself when looking at the concert programme a few days before, could that be possible, or more of anything but academic interest?  Of course I should have consulted the Middle C record earlier and been reminded of the duo’s performance of “La Valse” (another piece I would have thought well-nigh impossible to bring off satisfactorily, before reading my colleague’s enthusiastic review….)

By way of preparing for the music’s onslaught in this particular form (of course I’ve known – and gradually gotten to love – the original orchestral “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) ever since my first open-mouthed teenaged encounter with the work on record in the 1960s), I had the bright idea of finding an existing performance for piano duo on You Tube beforehand, simply to get an idea of how it would all translate in pianistic terms. What surprised me on doing so was the extent to which everything suddenly sounded more “harmonic” than I’d ever previously heard, the music’s harmonies, tones and colours actually competing with the piece’s rhythms for my ear’s attentions! It made me look forward all the more to what Chao and Chen would do with this iconic score.

However, there seemed almost another concert’s-worth of other music to be got through beforehand, here! – with each scheduled item having its own intrinsic interest either by association or repute – the one blank I drew was with the name Hanna Kulenty, and upon investigation was suitably mortified to find a catalogue of completed works any composer would be proud to own, thus furthering my education in yet another direction, that of contemporary Polish composition!

Partly because the piano was still in its infancy, there are surprisingly few works for keyboard four- hands from the time before Mozart, the most prominent being a handful of sonatas by Johann Christian Bach, who, of course was the former’s only acknowledged composition teacher. This work, in D Major K.381, dates from the time when Mozart’s regular performing partner was his sister, Nannerl, a child prodigy like her brother, their father touring them around Europe as wunderkind – at that time their chosen instrument was probably still the harpsichord, rather than the newfangled fortepiano (the forerunner of the modern pianoforte).

The duo‘s spirited attack at the Sonata’s beginning soon gives way here to expertly-nuanced dynamic contrast as the music announces its “orchestral” quality of loud/soft and staccato/legato passages. The music has all the character one might expect from such a living, breathing organism, including a telling minor-key shift at one point before the jovial mood reasserts itself, though I liked the way the movement’s end was gracefully, almost enigmatically voiced, rather than merely hammered for brilliances’s sake.

Richly-wrought, beautifully-rounded tones characterise the slow movement’s opening, the gentle dying fall at the exposition’s end “leans” us eagerly into the following sections, markedly highlighting the work of each player, primo and secondo (Chao the former, and Chen the latter, incidentally)…… then the finale’s fanfare-like opening and contrasting exchanges of leading voices make for an almost operatic scenario of “give-and-take” throughout, complete with contrasting trajectories alternated between tumbling triplets and snappy dotted rhythms – such a joy!

From here we leapfrogged into a new century of sentiment and sensibility with the music of another youthful prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn, in the form of his Andante & Allegro Brilliante Op. 92, a piece he wrote to perform with the young Clara Schumann. The piece’s layout strongly reflects, both physically and musically the idea of partnership and harmonious balance, qualities emphasised by both players in their spoken introduction to the work. Strange as it might seem to anybody upon hearing the work’s exquisitely contrasting parts, it was first published with the opening Andante omitted – but fortunately a new age has restored the composer’s original concept of a coming-together of contrasting impulse in friendship.

Chen and Chao straightaway establish a mood of seamless flow of concerted lyricism, beginning with the secondo player alone, and then handing over to the primo as if it all came from a single pianist. The Allegro suddenly and impishly irrupts from the lower registers, spreading its joyful energies over the whole spectrum, the players here combining delicacy with sparkle and brilliance, all the while literally and delightfully playing into one another’s hands – towards the end comes a lonely luftpause, a couple of tentative impulses, and then an explosion of whirlwind elfin energies bringing to us the conclusion.

Came a further shift both forwards in time and here to these shores with John Psathas’s 1997 work Motet – and here we were given the treasurable bonus of not only having the composer present but (unexpectedly for him!) brought to the platform to introduce the work, which he did, presumably to honour the efforts of these, his former students at the School of Music! Psathas held us spellbound as he described both aspects of the work’s character and its actual premiere in this same venue, given by pianists Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons. He also recounted to our merriment the incident of a hapless audience member attempting to noisily extricate a cough lozenge from its plastic wrapping during a quieter sequence in the music, and being silenced by a hissed admonition from Houstoun!

Beth Chen took the primo here, for this remarkable work, a kind of “ritual” in four parts, the music beginning with the duo opening up vast, nebulous vistas, a wandering treble picking its way over bardic-like spread bass chords, the effect almost aleatoric, as if enacting the discovery of a new land. A third voice intones a long-breathed melody, chant-like at first, but gradually becoming more rugged and jagged in effect, the sounds gathering weight and the harmonies clashing acrimoniously – such flavoursome volatility conjured up here! – with the ensuing chaos dissolving into silence.

Twice more the music rises from its own embers, firstly with a chordal theme hoisting a beacon which sparks off a toccata-like irruption from the textures, buoyed by rallying shouts and vigorous scintillations of dancing figures! When this also spectacularly implodes, the musicians again bring their energies to bear on the work’s repeatedly-checked trajectories, which once again revive and begin to pulsate with renewed life as they plunge towards the liberating resolution of a single chord,  completing the ritual! – all that’s left at the end is an ambience of wonderment, and a welcome reassurance that life and our world are worth preserving……

Virtuoso Turkish pianist Fazil Say appeared next on the programme as a composer, with his 2017 work Night (commissioned by the Dutch Piano Duo Lucas and Arthur Jusson). Say had previously (2013) gotten into trouble with Turkish authorities over remarks which he had “tweeted” being considered disrespectful to the Islam religion , to the point where he was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence, and his music banned from performance – as a gesture of support the dedicatees of Night actually played the work on tour in Ankera as an encore after it had been officially removed from the original programme. Ostensibly the piece is about contrasting qualities associated with the night and its mysteries, both sinister and enticing, though each of the contrasting moods might well readily lend themselves to subversive interpretation regarding repressions which could be exerted on individuals by an authoritative government.

Say’s piece opens with a shadowy, careering juggernaut-like propulsive character, somewhat reminiscent of the manner of Prokofiev in his earlier piano works, when at his most percussive and relentlessly rhythmic. Chen (primo) and Chao (secondo) build the excitement unerringly and remorselessly until the trajectories break off, and the players transform the ambiences with subtle manipulations of the piano strings inside the lid (evocations of the “alluring siren call” mentioned in the programme note). It’s as much music of “flight” and danger as of mystery and allurement, and its ending packs an almost self-destructing punch!

Polish Composer Hanna Kulenty’s work “VAN…” was next, after the interval. Originally written for a concert during the state visit to Poland by the King and Queen of the Netherlands in 2014, it wasn’t performed on that occasion for whatever reason, and was instead premiered later in the year by the aforementioned Dutch Piano Duo, Lucas and Arthur Jusson. The piece opens gently and spaciously with ascending/descending repeated chords in both the middle and higher registers of the piano, before the secondo player (Chao) abruptly beginning a toccata-like figure, soon taken up by the primo player, both of whom then enact an extended kaleidoscopic exchange of repeated impulses which constantly interact through exchange, reflection and alternation. The harmonies are tonal, and most wonderfully resonate both unto themselves and relative to their progressions, the effect being a kind of perception of a reality that’s constantly made to change, not unlike the effect in some minimalist works I’ve encountered. The players suddenly and abruptly stop the toccata figure upon a held chord, one whose resonant decay poignantly colours the return of the opening chordal figures into and through an amazing silence…..beautifully done…..

I couldn’t help feeling that the concert was become one of two distinct halves at this point, if not weighted quite as I was expecting, thanks to the outstanding musicianship of Beth Chen and Nicole Chao in making the diverse characters of the different works we’d so far heard really come to life – as someone whose prime purpose in attending the concert was to experience the final scheduled item “live” I found myself already replete with musical stimulation, and wondered as well how Chen and Chao would physically and mentally shape up to the Stravinsky work “The RIte of Spring” that we were about to hear, and  especially after despatching the first part of the programme so vigorously and convincingly.

As it turned out I had absolutely no cause to worry, though I confess the subsequent effect of both the performance of “The Rite” and its character as a piece of music surprised me, particularly so in the wake of my having heard that other piano duo performance on You Tube. My first impression upon watching the latter was that the piano version for me had radically changed the whole character of the piece from one whose primarily nature was rhythmic to one which at the very least stressed the equal importance of harmony. Having grown up exclusively hearing orchestral versions of  the piece, I’ve found, particularly in the more heavily-scored passages, the rhythmic complexities of the music to my ears have dominated and indeed often submerged things like harmony, colour and (in places) actual pitch of notes! For this reason it was like unexpectedly listening to a new work for me, one far less insistent and subjected to a hegemony of percussion and heavy scoring, as in most recordings I’d heard. I made no judgement of either in qualitative or quantitative terms, regarding both versions as equally valid, and especially after having read somewhere that the composer worked concurrently on both a piano and an orchestral score at the time of composition.

My second surprise, however, came at this point in the concert with the incredible playing in the same work of the wonderful Duo Enharmonics pair, which (unlike the You Tube version I’d watched and listened to) bore out the statements made by the programme’s note-writer relating to the piano as a “percussive instrument”, and the “heightened brutality” of the piano version – made, according to the writer, “on an instrument that is capable of becoming a machine”. And all because, unlike the on-line piano version I’d encountered and listened to, Beth Chen and Nicole Chao seemed to literally “take no prisoners” with the work, bringing to its presentation an attack, an edge, a richness of tone, a strength and an energy that for me rivalled many orchestral versions of the ballet I’d heard.  I’d actually go so far as to say that, for me, it all seemed at times even a bit too much of a good thing, with Chen and Chao pushing hard in places (such as in some of the detailings of the Introduction to Part One, where more light-and-shade of touch might have afforded some welcome variety; as could have parts of the Ritual of the Rival Tribes,  where I found the hammered tones now and then over-insistent).

It might seem as if I’m contradicting myself, here, but I did wonder to what extent Chen and Chao might have made themselves familiar with the work’s orchestral versions, so as to get such sounds as a kind of “reference” in their heads. In fact they may even have thought such a course was unnecessary, given that they were playing the composer’s own piano version with its own tailor-made dynamics. Having said all of this, I must emphasise  the fact that I was truly stunned by the Duo’s playing of the work, lost in admiration of what they were actually achieving, however much in places I might have wanted slightly more varied and transparent tones. It’s important to pay proper attention to what is actually done in order to convey as fully as possible one’s appreciation of it all – and therefore to what Duo Enharmonics achieved overall with this concert I take my hat off in sheer admiration and wonderment – “Sacre bleu!”


De Waart and NZSO: Brilliant Mozart two piano concerto and epic Mahler performance

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart
Piano duo: Christina and Michelle Naughton

Mozart: Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat, K.365
Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 6 Apr, 6:30 pm

For me, two of Mozart’s most beguiling works have adjacent numbers in the Köchel catalogue: the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (K 364) and the Concerto for two pianos (K 365), meaning that scholars believed they were written about the same time, 1779. Certainly, they have both been deeply embedded in my affections, perhaps through the performances I first heard.

This was a little before Mozart’s leaving Salzburg for Vienna (around the same time as he wrote the flute concertos, the Coronation Mass, the Posthorn Serenade, Symphony No 33, the Solemn Vespers). It was the last piano concerto, numbered 10, written in Salzburg; next came the first three in Vienna, Nos 11, 12 and 13, in 1782, the first of the 17 truly mature and immortal piano concertos.

Mozart’s instrumentation varied. What we heard from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under  their music director Edo de Waart, was Mozart’s original score which he played with his sister, Nannerl; it involved, as well as usual strings, only pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns. Mozart revised it later when he played it with a pupil, adding pairs of clarinets and trumpets. The string numbers were interesting too: instead of the usual declining numbers through violins to basses, De Waart employed eight each of first and second violins, and violas; I couldn’t see all the cellos but suspect there were 6, and probably 2 basses. I wondered whether De Waart had employed these numbers to create a fuller sound in the middle range, to balance with the weight of two pianos.

The orchestral introduction was elegant and deeply felt, with flowing rhythms; its character was complementary to the pianos which entered boldly, but quickly subsided to a delicate, rather affecting mood. Rather than pitting them against each other, the main feature of their playing is an almost uncanny interweaving of lines, sharing the music with beguiling charm, often taking over from each other mid-phrase, and ensuring that it was never possible to feel that one was the ‘primo’, the other ‘secondo’, as is usual with duets.

The major attraction was of course, the piano duo, Christina and Michelle Naughton: twin sisters, aged 28, born in Princeton, New Jersey of European/Chinese ancestry. They grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and their musical education was at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. They occupy the sort of place among duo pianists enjoyed for several decades by the Labèque sisters. They lack nothing in musicianship, technical skill and interpretive insight.

The second movement, Andante, prolonged the sense of elegance, the pianos often elaborately decorating and echoing the orchestral lines through the long melodies. Till the pianos eventually came to dominate in an extended cadenza-like episode in which the orchestra re-joins just before the end. It seemed like a magical introduction to the spirited, optimistic mood of the Rondo with its long curving lines that the two pianists adorned with tasteful ornaments. They led the confident fugal passage in a playfully rhetorical fashion, that seemed to mock the expectation of a portentous finale.

The whole was far more than the sum of its parts however, as it was obvious throughout that we were hearing a couple of immaculate pianists who performed, as was repeated in promotional material, as if one, each seeming to process her part through the same mind and hands, neither seeking pre-eminence, and creating the feeling that each felt as if merely a half of a single instrument.

Their encore was something of a curiosity and a surprise. No doubt encore pieces for piano duo are thin on the ground: this was Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos – based Paganini’s 24th Caprice, by Lutosławski. The other pianist when it was written in 1941 was composer Panufnik who had also remained in Warsaw during the war and they played it in the city under horrendous German occupation (read Panufnik’s gripping autobiography, Composing Myself). They survived the terrible months in late 1944 when Soviet forces remained passively on the east bank of the Vistula, making no move to defend Warsaw while the German forces destroyed the city; it suited Soviet anti-Polish policies.
One YouTube listener to a performance of the piece by Argerich and Kissin remarked “époustouflant!” The Naughton sisters played it from memory; “époustouflant!” indeed!

I was surprised to see a few empty seats after the interval (it had looked a very full house before), as the Mahler approached. Fancy forgoing the chance to hear, not just an ordinary performance but what emerged after 70 minutes as a superb, emotionally elaborate and intellectually sophisticated creation.

There are trumpet fanfares and trumpet fanfares, and this was the latter, if you see what I mean. Michael Kirgan was flawless: flamboyant perhaps, but arresting, heroic, while at the same time relaxed. The fanfare foreshadowed the spirit and narrative of this, perhaps most familiar of all the symphonies. Then the grand yet melancholy tone of the strings prompted anticipation of the momentous epic that was to follow.

Mahler linked the first two movements as Part I, and he treated the last two similarly, as Part III. Apart from the thematic connections between movements that might have been fairly uncommon before his time, there seems little reason today to think of the work as other than in five movements.

The second movement is marked Sturmische bewegt, mit grosser Vehemenz; De Waart opened with ferocity and vehemence as instructed, while later his orchestra depicted an extraordinary calm, with feathery emotions dominated by beautiful woodwinds, alternating with passages from strings expressing a returning disquiet, and turbulent passages that probably taxed the brass but emerge flawless.

The middle movement, Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast) hardly complied with the instruction to express strength; its scherzo character, its luminosity seemed to predominate, and there are charming dance-like episodes of string pizzicato, dreamy horns and woodwinds. Its triple time certainly lends itself to suggestions of the Ländler and the Waltz: whether that it amounts to ‘social commentary on excess’, as the programme notes suggest, bears consideration…

The audience seemed to sigh at its recognition of the arrival of the beautiful Adagietto; and its mood was indeed one of inconsolable sadness, while never losing itself in weakness or lacking in a feeling of profound humanity. Scored for only strings and harp, there were many beautiful passages for those instruments to express poignancy and reflectiveness.

The last movement, Rondo, follows the course prescribed by Mahler: Allegro-Allegro giocoso. Frisch (lively); and there is much delicate, pastoral scoring, initially for strings, gently becoming ‘giocoso’ with horns, oboes, trumpets and the rest, all immaculately played. And a longish fugal section that is the vehicle for dancing and gaiety rather than for musical seriousness.

Not only was this a wonderful performance that would have converted any Mahler sceptic (and the slight thinning of the audience suggests they still exist), but would have left even the most confirmed or blasé listener with a renewed feeling of wonderment and optimism, overcoming for the moment, disquiet at all the world’s increasing turbulence and horrors. Mahler might have lived during a period of relative international peace and temporary personal happiness, yet there was, nevertheless, in this most sanguine, as well as tumultuous of symphonies, material for listeners to this magnificent performance a century or more later to experience a huge range of external and personal emotions, both grieving and ecstatic.


Anderson and Roe Piano Duo – a compelling and invigorating mix of gravitas and glitter!

Anderson and Roe Piano Duo

Arrangements for two pianos/four hands of music by Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Georges Bizet

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe (pianos)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th March, 2018

Duo pianists Anderson and Roe are very much the products of the millennial age, two accomplished graduates from the Juilliard School of Music who make music together out of a shared vision of wanting “to strengthen and make more relevant the place of classical music in the new millennium”. They’ve been playing as a duo for fourteen years, now, and intend to continue to do so, along with keeping their own solo careers ticking over. Despite some of their extremely physical duo-pianistic interactions on stage, they’re not real-life partners (Greg Anderson is married, but to someone else, while Elizabeth Joy Roe is unmarried).  However, they both enjoy the physical choreography and intimacy of four-hands at one piano as much as their two-piano work, and don’t ever stint on the intensity and overt emotionalism and sensuality of the music they play together. In Roe’s own words,“This whole partnership arose out of a pure desire to have a joyful time together, to try new things and just to keep exploring what’s possible with presentation and execution.”

I must confess to some initial hesitation regarding reviewing the concert, prior to finding out anything about the pair’s performance and musical philosophies, and reading only the usual “hype springs eternal” publicity blurb. I thought that the experience might involve spending an evening enduring a relentless onslaught of  empty and facile double-pianistic note-spinning arrangements – something to which I have a definite aversion, particularly those “display” concerti that proliferated during the nineteenth century, which enabled performers to “show off” their virtuosic skills over endless sequences of brilliant-sounding nothings! Happily Anderson and Roe’s playing bore out the many positive reports I was able to read from different sources, indicating that their partnership was something definitely out of the ordinary.

These feelings were certainly reinforced by my finding out details of the actual repertoire they were going to perform for us, a programme which appeared to alternate the virtuosic element with the profound and poetic. Thus we in the audience were able to gauge their abilities over a wider spectrum than was perhaps expected. True, there were no “big” duo-pianist works such as any by Schubert or Rachmaninov in the concert, which I counted as an opportunity missed. However there was sufficient gravitas and depth in what they played acting as a counterweight to the equally enjoyable arrangements of “popular” music which emphasised humour and brilliance.

They had what I think is an overall philosophy of performing, which they were able to apply to everything they did – this was to throw themselves entirely into each of the item’s particular world of expression,  and adopt ways of bringing out the essentials of whatever piece. However, in doing this they became chameleon-like in their different kinds of treatment of each of the works, so that we in the audience felt transported to each “space” inhabited by the composer of the original music. I got the feeling that they wanted to pay homage to each of these creative acts by bringing out the individual “character” of the pieces – in the event, most successfully.

Throughout the concert both musicians attached particular importance to talking with us, taking it in turn to introduce the pieces, bring out salient points and underline any significant and illuminating association the pair might have previously had with any parts of the programme.

Of course, the visual aspect of a piano duo or duet  (the pair played two pianos simultaneously, and occasionally a four-handed duo on a single piano, changing instruments and seating positions for each of the items) wasn’t neglected, and there were plenty of virtuoso thrills and the occasional amusing antic involving intertwining arms and bodies to reach the keys – but these were entertainment incidentals rather than essences, which didn’t divert them from the more serious purpose of doing the music justice. In short, I felt they made sure the concert was primarily about the music, rather than about them, and I loved their playing all the more for that.

Obviously the pair’s virtuosity was a key component in the presentation of the more serious music as well, and came to the fore in the nonchalance with which they threw off some of the difficulties of things like the opening Prelude, Fugue and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein, as well as the ease with which they set in motion the ebb and flow of the different sequences from the same composer’s “West Side Story” at the second half’s beginning (they even got us joining in with the shouts of “Mambo” during the first section of that work – our first unison attempt was a bit ragged, but with Roe’s expert semaphoring as a guide, the second shout of “Mambo!” we delivered was one to die for!).

That “character” which the pair imbued in every piece they played came to the fore in heartfelt fashion during the first half’s sequence of arrangements using material with a kind of Gospel-song ethos, from John Adams’ “Halleluiah Junction”, through the treatment accorded Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah”, and finishing with a redemptive-like take on Paul McCartney’s inspirational “Let it be”. Regarding the last of those items, Roe had set the tone for our listening by inviting us to join in with her singing of McCartney’s opening melody and words (her voice extremely lovely in its own right), before the two pianists opened up the vistas (the accompanying note used the phrase “duelling Gospel pianists”!), powerfully suggesting a revivalist kind of fervour to illuminate the music’s message.

Another highlight for me was the deeply-felt and serenely spell-binding performance of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the composer’s opera “Orphee et Euridice”, which, significantly, the pair chose to resent as a four-hands duet at one keyboard rather than use the bigger two-piano sonorities. That kind of wide-screen sound was restored for the concert’s final scheduled item, the pair’s own exploration of themes and sequences from Bizet’s opera “Carmen”, here given with all the sensuous atmosphere, colour and rhythmic swagger and excitement that we all associate with Bizet’s score. There were several encores afterwards, but Bizet’s music made an appropriately brilliant climax to the programme, which had the audience clapping and bravo-ing for more, the pair generous in response, and leaving us replete with a sense of occasion.






Chamber Music New Zealand hosts exciting concert by pianos and percussion

Chamber Music New Zealand: “Rhythm and Resonance”

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, K 448; Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (arr. Guldborg); Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (arr. Ptaszynska)

Diedre Irons and Michael Endres – pianos; Thomas Guldborg and Lenny Sakovsky – percussion

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 26 August, 7:30 pm

This step outside the usual range of string-dominant chamber music attracted a big house in the Michael Fowler Centre; the welcome by CEO Euan Murdoch also suggested that a larger number of younger people had been drawn by this programme, with its less familiar instrumental context, yet of major works.

And he drew attention to the use of an overhead camera that projected a bird’s eye view of the array of instruments – mainly the percussion – on the stage.

But the concert began with the only sonata that Mozart wrote for two pianos (the only other piece for two pianos is a Fugue in C minor, K 426). It’s a magnificent richly melodic masterpiece that responded whole-heartedly to treatment by four hands on two Steinways – the thought of any possible advantage from fortepianos never entered my head. The performance exploited the sonic possibilities of two instruments without producing sounds that were too dense or cluttered.

The two instruments were lined up side by side rather than facing each other with their bodies curling intimately together; so the primo player (in this case Diedre Irons) was visually dominant. The two have not dissimilar approaches to performance, devoted to playing of clarity and vigour as well as a scrupulous treatment of the varying dynamics. Even more impressive was their subtle rhythmic elasticity which, from the very percussive nature of the piano, poses a considerable challenge for two players: mere ensemble is hard enough.

In brief, this was music of genius played by two pianists who were virtually flawless in ensemble and musical spirit, and their performance entranced me from start to finish. There are so many beguiling phases, among the most charming the exquisite trill-opened motifs near the beginning of the Andante which were crystal clear yet imbued with magic.

The performance of Ravel’s Tombeau might have surprised an audience unprepared for the arrangement of the stage, pianos removed, leaving it dominated by three marimbas to be played by the two NZSO percussionists. From the start I found myself quite accepting of the altered quality of the music: much as I love the piano original, I am particularly partial to the marimba. Yet I wondered whether there might have been some monotony in the sound after a while. But that was at least partly avoided as Sakofsky moved, at the beginning of the Forlane, from the marimba at right angles to the audience, to one facing the audience, that produced a somewhat brighter, keen-edged tone. The spirit of Ravel survived excellently, since the eight mallets flourished by the players seemed to encompass all the notes in the piano score.

After the interval there were further re-arrangements: marimbas moved to the rear and xylophones, along with tam tam, side and bass drums, timpani and cymbals filled the stage. Oddly, this was one of the first truly ‘modern’ pieces of classical music I came to know through the small but curious collection that my girl-friend (later my wife) brought to our joint LP collection when we were about 21. It’s one of those works that seems to sound just as shocking and barbaric now as it did then (and that performance, an Argo recording paired with Contrasts for piano, violin and clarinet, still surprises me by its violent sounds and extreme dynamic contrasts).

What we heard on Tuesday was rather more well-mannered and less fierce. In addition, the big acoustic of the MFC subdues the harshness and acerbity of extreme sounds, and it was no doubt the more civilised sound that the four players produced that allowed the audience to enjoy this classic of modernity as they evidently did, judging from the applause. I think it loses little with less hard-edged sound and brutalism and that was the way it came off the stage; though it would have been too much to ask that such music be flawless in togetherness and finesse.

Incidentally, instead of being on the medium level stage as earlier chamber music concerts, including the Houstoun Beethoven concerts, had been, these performances which involved more instruments were at the usual high level of the stage which makes visibility difficult for the front dozen rows – hence the usefulness of the view from above, projected on the screen.

The last item had not been on the advertised programme or otherwise conspicuously announced: Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is shorter than other famous treatments of this piece (Paganini’s 24th violin Caprice), though there are about twelve variations (the programme note did not disclose and that was my slightly uncertain count).  Lutoslawski wrote it in the early years of the war in German-occupied Warsaw, when he and Panufnik lived by playing piano duets in cabarets (for a revelatory account of that, read Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself). It was about the only one of Lutoslawski’s pieces to survive the horrendous German onslaught on Warsaw to put down the famous Warsaw uprising, as the Soviet army sat on the other side of the Vistula and did nothing to support the Polish resistance.

What we heard was an arrangement of the two-piano original commissioned by the Danish Safri Duo, made not by the composer, but by Polish Chicago composer Marta Ptaszynska. Compared with that original, I have to confess to finding the percussion additions a little superfluous. The original, which contains echoes of the Rachmaninov version, is sufficiently percussive and the addition of percussion instruments seemed to reduce the unique impact of the two pianos which, in good hands has all the brilliance, excitement and visceral scariness that is needed to bring a concert like this to a thrilling, hire-wire climax.

To hear and see what I mean, look at You Tube for a recent performance by Anastasia and Liubov Gromoglasova in Moscow. However, that is a small matter alongside the otherwise brilliant exhibition of skill and musicality that these four splendid musicians demonstrated in all four works. I had the very clear impression of a delighted audience leaving the MFC at the end.