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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Fantasia contrappuntistica for two pianos (1910, arr. for two pianos in 1921) [28.02]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Trois morceaux en forme de poire (four hands) (1903) [14.48]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Khamma (four hands) (1910) [19.37]
Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Pupazzetti (1914) [7.06]
Anthony HERSCHEL-HILL (1939-2016)
Nocturne for two pianos (early 1980s) [3.46]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonate four hands (1918 rev. 1939) [5.57]
Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown (piano duo)
rec. 2016, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, UK

Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica for two pianos dazzles in its complexity and sheer brilliance. Composed in veneration of the composer’s hero, J.S. Bach, Busoni successfully develops counterpoint on from the stage that Bach reached – as the album’s erudite booklet notes author, Michael Quinn explains – “Bach never completed his seminal exploration of counterpoint, his death in July 1750 truncating its final movement (Contrapunctus XVIII) at the point where three subjects conjoin in readiness for a fourth to create a concluding quadruple fugue”.

In response Busoni created a work in Bach’s idiom yet its distinguishing features belong wholly to Busoni and modernity. The Fantasia was originally created for single piano in 1910, a study version was produced in 1912 and the Fantasia arranged for two pianos in 1921. The extraordinary demands of the work convinced Busoni that 20 fingers were necessary to ease both performance and listener appreciation.

Jacobson and Brown surmount the considerable technical demands and intricacies of this powerful work to deliver a revelatory performance of a monumentally epic work for piano that makes equal demands on both performers and listeners.

For this reviewer the Debussy work has special interest in this the centenary year of the composer’s death. This apparently is the first recording of Debussy’s Khamma ballet music.
It was commissioned by Maud Allen, whose dubious reputation included a provocative setting of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. It seems that her existence was also beset with other scandals. Debussy apparently only accepted the commission because he needed the money. The ballet is set in ancient Egypt. Its heroine dances in prayer to protect her peoples from invasion. When the invaders are repelled she dies in self-sacrifice to the gods. Creative differences arose between Debussy and Allen and an orchestral score was never completed – just a piano transcription – and the ballet only staged 25 years after its abandonment in a completion by Charles Koechlin in 1937.

This is Debussy at probably his most exotic. Its strange but always colourful harmonies encourage the imagination to fly, especially aided by this inspired version for two pianos that stretches the colour palette so much more evocatively. The music is sinuous, sensual, pleading, pensive, playful and capricious, declarative and victorious. There are jazzy syncopated episodes and sinister bass ostinatos. Great fun.

The Casella piano duet, Pupazzetti (‘Puppets’) is equally appealing especially to children. Casella had conducted the Italian premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka which must have made a distinct impression on him. Similar extravagancies are to be found here in terms of its bristly rhythms and sharply contrasting dynamics. The Berceuse, though, is a more settled little gem something of a tender lullaby. The witty and charming Serenata swanks its way stridently. Notturnino begins with a gentle rocking motion before complex rhythms set in and a nostalgic little episode and a touch of chinoiserie complete the picture. Finally Casella’s Polka hurries, scurries along almost in a blind panic, the rhythms perky and insistent.

Similarly, Satie is his usual anarchic self in his Trois morceaux en forme de poire (‘Three pieces in the form of a pear’). It was written in response to Debussy’s taunt that his music lacked form. Satie commented, “You cannot criticise my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire, they cannot be shapeless”.

The French word Poire can be translated, in French slang, as ‘head’ and the word also refers to a child’s spinning top. All poire ‘meanings’ are implicit in the music. One might think of the thin top of the pear fruit as the head of a bulbous body. Childhood allusions continually arise, including to that spinning top. The music is playful, sardonic and subject to extremes – extreme and rapid and disturbing changes in dynamics – and sudden dissonances. The two pianos offer a full appreciation of Satie’s odd self-indulgent, subversive musical world.

Poulenc’s brief, six-minute-or-so Sonata for Piano, Four Hands written when he was not yet 20 in 1918 (but revised in 1939), is as Quinn suggests “a helter-skelter collage in which the ostinato thumbprint of Stravinsky, melodic directness of Satie and Bartok’s dancing appropriation of folk tunes are smudged by the vitality of the jazz music that enthralled a Paris recovering from the Great War”. Just so. The subversive is in evidence again here and occasionally that insouciance that makes mature Poulenc so very appealing shines through. I was particularly attracted to the central ‘Rustique’ movement redolent of folk music yet gently haunting and bell-like.

Finally there is the Nocturne of Anthony Herschell Hill who died in 2016. He studied with Herbert Howells at the RCM and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His piano tutors included Louis Kentner and Cyril Smith. Composed in the early 1980s, this Nocturne is an arrangement for two pianos of an earlier work composed in memory of his father. It is an intensely heartfelt composition, the music suggesting a loss experienced deeply, sometimes bitterly. The mood is restless, mostly downcast, forlorn. The writing is interesting and individual, time signatures shift - disconcertingly on first hearing. This is most interesting and unusual music.

Impressive and revealing music for two pianos. Rewarding for the adventuresome listener.

Ian Lace



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