Four-handed harmonies - Schubert, Desyatnikov, Cage piano recordings

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday June 25, 2024
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Recordings by Bertrand Chamayou, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy
Recordings by Bertrand Chamayou, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy

You don't have to go back to Glenn Gould to consider that things that are possible in the recording studio don't, and often can't, make the same impression on the recital stage. Two new superbly-recorded discs by pianists renowned for their concert work show what's possible when the meters are running.

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, London-based partners in life as well as at the keyboard, have added compelling playing as a duo, especially in music for piano four-hands (although two pianos will also do), to their work as in-demand soloists. The rewards are revealed in their new recording of music by Franz Schubert and Leonid Desyatnikov (Harmonia Mundi).

Bertrand Chamayou, whose relish for ensemble work has made him the collaborator of choice for a huge range of musicians, amplifies two other recent recording projects with "Cage2" (Erato), devoted to composer John Cage's music for prepared piano.

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy  

Unexplored territories
Kolesnikov and Samson build their program on Schubert's well-known and much-loved F-Minor Fantasie, which they offered to the public in an already famous performance at London's Wigmore Hall. (A YouTube video of the performance shows their hand-over-hand playing at its most eye-catching.) But they neither lead with it nor center it, instead playing it last in a program that mines it for its ideas as well as its beauties.

The Fantasie is hardly unexplored territory. There is a rich tradition of recordings with some surprising pianist pairings, notably Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter, gay musicians who understandably soft-pedaled issues of sexuality. Kolesnikov and Samson plumb the score's depths while also communicating, almost magically, its roots as "house music," composed for intimate, at-home meetings of musical minds.

The opening, one of those haunting Schubert melodies that both startle you and yet sound as if you have heard them all your life, enters as usual, if with an uncommon delicacy bordering on fragility. The tune's motive yearning intensifies at its every return, but where the duo makes its mark is their accentuating of the more martial passages that repeatedly interrupt the dreamy calm. The interstitial clamor at first banishes the plaintive melody, then proposes new ways of dealing with the duality, such that the listener misses each one as the other, however briefly, takes over. It's sorcery of the most elevated kind.

The stage is set for that fundamental duality by the album's first selection, the late, very rarely heard, three-movement Divertissement a la hongroise. Its wisp of a theme is enticing from the start but becomes ever more mysterious over what is essentially a long series of variations. From another composer the material might be dismissed as slight, but Schubert makes the filagree an act of its own.

What at first seem like mere frills morph into ever more engaging gestures until the musical cell is not exhausted but, rather, amplified. It's light on its feet, and even as it melts away, you wonder where this entrancing music has been all your life.

Fooled eye
The demonstrably new piece, which takes center stage, is Leonid Desyatnikov's "Trompe- l'oeil," composed for these musicians and, by their accounts, further refined in the studio with the resources to be found there. The pianists allow that the piece's vanishing, then reappearing aspects were not fully revealed to them until they heard their own work in playback (rightly occasioning more takes).

"Trompe-l'oeil" takes its name from the technique in painting by which a flat surface is made to appear three-dimensional. Its debt to Schubert's Fantasie is clear; it quotes it, sometimes slyly, other times baldly. Noisier passages interspersed among the more evanescent ones elaborate the original's uneasy balance of melody and march.

Strains of the Fantasie approach only to recede, a kind of sonic illusion comparable to the visual illusion of trompe l'oeil. There are passing dissonances, but a hallmark of this piece is its address of the listener in music that never sounds abrasive. It's all there on the surface, except when it isn't. There's a critical cliche about how certain kinds of music reward repeated hearing. "Trompe-l'oeil" virtually demands it, but the payoffs are as great as the music is intermittently challenging.

Bertrand Chamayou  

Cagey business
Tucked away in French pianist Bertrand Chamayou's previous solo album, "Letter(s) to Erik Satie" (Warner Classics/Erato) were comparable miniatures by John Cage, linked so convincingly that a listener absorbed in the dream world of Satie might not immediately register that a companion piece was by Cage.

In both cases, the music's draw is not any superficial prestidigitation. Instead, it hypnotically alters and often even suspends time, with as much attention paid to the silences as to the notes. What at first sounds simple slowly reveals itself as a more vast soundscape. Playing it asks fierce, unbroken concentration.

Chamyou packaged and framed the Satie pieces among seven piano pieces by John Cage, the lifelong creative as well as domestic partner of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Individually and together, the two artistic mavericks changed the face and often direction of experimentation in the performing arts, however ironically, themselves making art that has lasted. No one would confuse Cage's music with Satie's, of course, but Chamayou played both with an accent on both the similarities and the differences.

Chamayou is renowned for the reliable beauty of tone in his playing, so it initially came as a shock to learn that Chamayou had extended his investigation of Cage's music to investigate the ones for prepared piano, an altogether difference instrument —make that box of wood and wire— in which the tone is skewed or, rather, literally screwed.

A piano is "prepared" by placing, carefully but deliberately, screws, bolts, blocks of wood, other kinds of common hardware onto, under, and/or between the piano's strings. The preparation is random only in the sense that Cage lauded in all his work, and preparing both the piano and the music is painstaking work that then must sound like play.

In the sphere of audible silences, nothing rivals Cage's famous (or infamous) "4'33"," a complete yet somehow ensnaring silence of that duration "played" by a real-life, onstage pianist. But in Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, from which Chamayou has drawn his program, the sonorities are, to say the least, various. Having carefully prepared his own Steinway D according to Cage's highly specific instructions (and moved it to Brad Pitt's Miraval Studios in Provence), Chamayou revels in all of them.

Cage would love that his soundscapes have no verbal equivalents, at least precise ones. Beauty is redefined but somehow never abandoned. For all of their charged rhythms and pre-minimalist repetitions, the pieces taken together have a meditative quality.

The title of the first track, "Mysterious Adventure," could stand for the works in total. The piano's percussive qualities overtake its melodic capacity, and overtones count as much as "tones." The piece called "Primitive" earns its name with propulsive rhythms Stravinsky would have admired.

Listening to this singular music is like falling into welcoming syrup, sometimes sweet, sometimes medicinal, but always enveloping. I find that it's music that, if you give yourself to it, can make you deeply, ridiculously happy.

'Franz Schubert, Leonid Desyatnikov, Music for Piano Four-hands,' Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, pianists, Harmonia Mundi CD and streaming.

'Cage2, Prepared-piano music of John Cage,' Bertrand Chamayou, piano, Erato CD and streaming.

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