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Mind Meld - Works for One Piano, Four Hands
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Candide Overture (arr. Charlie Harmon) (1955-56) [4:19]
Harold SHAPERO (b.1920)
Sonata for Piano Four Hands (1941) [14:50]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Six Épigraphes Antiques (1901, rev. 1916) [14:53]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1912-13) [33:27]
ZOFO Duet (Eva-Maria Zimmermann; Keisuke Nakagoshi (piano))
rec. 21-24 August 2011, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California. DDD
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92151 [67:28]

The pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann (Swiss) and Keisuke Nakagoshi (Japan - USA) joined forces and created the ZOFO duet in 2009. Unlike most piano duets, ZOFO perform the one-piano-four-hands repertoire exclusively; not two-piano works. They both enjoy the music of the 20th century, and so for their first concert together they chose to play Debussy, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Harold Shapero. This, their first CD, provides a fascinating program and spectacular performances to match, so I am not surprised that the record has just become a Grammy nominee! I only hope that after they have achieved fame they will reveal the meaning of “ZOFO”.
 
Bernstein’s flamboyant Candide Overture feels surprisingly comfortable in these new clothes. Its orchestral version is a firework display of colors but the piano provides an alternative palette and is as scintillating as the original. The music prances happily along, collecting motifs by the armful and throwing them up in the air. The performers play with enthusiasm and élan. They are not afraid to apply brute force when needed, and convey all the humor of this light-hearted gallop of a piece. It’s vivaciousness and happiness all the way.
 
Harold Shapero was Bernstein’s contemporary, classmate and friend. They often played four-hands together during their student years at Harvard. It was there and then that Shapero composed his Four-Hands Sonata, dedicated to Bernstein and premiered by the two friends in 1941. The first movement starts slowly and mysteriously - sparse, starry night-music. The tempo quickens to a jumpy staccato, and the narration enlivens, echoing the cheerful, carefree air of the Candide Overture. Unlike Bernstein, Shapero’s pranks always have good manners. The music has a certain grid-like quality, but the performers play with light and shade and keep things fluid and non-mechanical. The second movement is more static, with accents and echoes. It’s in the relaxed, slow-rocking lullaby style of Satie. Potent imperative chords are another recurring element. The finale bustles merrily: no hidden meanings here, just youth and joy. The performers play with excellent drive. The Sonata is a student’s work, not too deep or sophisticated, but it is technically well written and even memorable. Although the style is modern it is accessible and enjoyable, sprinkling the genial attitude of Mozart or Ravel with some seasoning from Stravinsky. 

Six Épigraphes Antiques
is less popular than it deserves. This is first-class Debussy. Originally, the composer wrote this music to accompany recitation of the “Bilitis” poems by Pierre Louÿs. Much later he reworked it for piano four hands. The suite was orchestrated by Ansermet and I love that version. However, the same thing happens here as with Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition: while the orchestration may dazzle with sheer opulence of color, the piano version dazzles with the thought “How could he do the same with just a piano?” The dark sensual character of the poems is reflected in the music. The titles (such as “That the night may be propitious”) are not really important: just read through them to get into the mood. These images carry a noble patina and the music speaks in hushed voices. Diaphanous veils sway in the darkness, and subtly slightly discernible scents float on the breeze. This ancient perfumed atmosphere is sustained across each of these six pieces.
 
The first two works on the disc - as well as the last - could tolerate a drier, more percussive sound, and even benefit from it. When it comes to Debussy, we encounter quite a different sound-world, and the performers adapt their tone admirably. Their touch is soft, their pace dreamy, they breathe the fragrance and walk on cat’s paws, in a very stylishly Debussian manner.
 
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was originally composed for piano four hands and then orchestrated by the composer, so we actually hear the original version here. It is less colorful than the “customary” orchestral version, but the effect is no less profound. The intrinsic rhythmic details are more starkly exposed in the more percussive piano presentation. It makes for interesting listening and, in this performance, it’s certainly gripping. ZOFO play with raw power and high voltage. The “fast and furious” places like the ending of the First Part are very impressive. Some of the more “slow and mystic” episodes such as the beginning of the Second Part, lack mystery and are weak in tension. Others, like Ritual Action of the Ancestors, are eerie and enthralling. One problem I have with this performance is the evenness of the dynamic level: some parts, like the Sacrificial Dance, are too even dynamically, just loud and loud and loud. This may be the result of technical recording decisions: it is very close, so it is difficult to distinguish between the “Fifty Shades of Loud”. For comparison, the recording made by the York2 duo is less percussive and more atmospheric, more remotely recorded and as a consequence more scenic; after all, this is a ballet. ZOFO’s grand piano sound is reverberant, sometimes ringing, never neutral; this creates a less natural feeling. Where the Yorks mesmerize, the ZOFO astonish. As a result, in the Yorks’ hands the result is more listenable and there is no danger of the percussive keyboard impacts getting on your nerves.
 
Overall, this is a very good disc. The four diverse works sound well together. The recording is very close and detailed, which works to the good for the more introvert Debussy and Shapero, but is sometimes over the top in the more energetic Bernstein and Stravinsky. Anyway, I wish them luck in the Grammy stakes, and will look out for other records by these spectacular four hands. 

Oleg Ledeniov 

Masterwork Index: Rite of Spring


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