Quattro Mani: Re-Structures
Piano music by Lansky, Ruders, Machover, Kurtág, Ben-Amots for four hands. Quattro Mani (Steven Beck, Susan Grace)—Bridge 9496—49:00, *** 1/2:
I often think of Johann Sebastian Bach when I think of combining multiple keyboard instruments. The image of Bach, with one or more of his sons performing at the Zimmermann Coffee House in Leipzig, performing one his adoptions for concerti for two solo instruments, comes to mind. The tradition may well have started before Bach. In the album from Quattro Mani (four hands) with Steven Beck and Susan Grace, we get to hear a set of five virtuosic and contemporary pieces written for two keyboards.
Two instruments allow a composer to create some interesting possibilities: differences in timbre, fuller, richer sonorities and harmonies, and a play with the stereo image, exchanging voices between the two performers. To be clear, the album features two players on two instruments.
The first piece, the most approachable, is entitled Out of the Blue by Paul Lansky. Its percussive opening plays with that stereo image capability. Composed of repetitive musical cells, it’s an overall energetic piece that seems to come and go, out of the blue.
Cembal d’Amore by Poul Ruders is a modern take on a baroque suite, here scored for piano and harpsichord. Here the differences in the timbre each instrument produces is exploited. Musical lines fit together like puzzle pieces, written for each instrument. Dissonance and rhythm are the composer’s major ingredients in this piece. Like baroque suites, the eight movements of this piece offer us a variety of musical ideas in small packages. The piece is novel for its celebration of the sound of the two instruments “as one,” and likewise as separate entities. The piece may challenge some listeners.
Re-structures by Tod Machover is the second major work on the album, scored for two pianos and live electronics. The electronics—synthesizers—help better establish the very “technical” aesthetic first introduced by the pianos in the opening statement. The modes and themes used in this piece look backward to works by Pierre Boulez, for whom this piece was written. The piece evokes vivid imagery. Repetitive motifs are easily recognizable, but the piece lacks any sense of real melodic and harmonic direction; instead the piece evokes more of a soundscape. Because the use of “celestial” sounding electronic patches, it is hard not to envision this as music that might accompany, say, a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Életút by György Kurtág is scored for two pianos and two basset horns, with one piano de-tuned a quarter tone. This piece is most certainly the most challenging listen. The liner notes mention the tuning between pianos “creates an unstable and dreamlike atmosphere.” For me, the piece was not an enjoyable listen, but did well to conjure depressing and dark thoughts.
The final piece, Tango for the Road by Ofer Ben-Amots puts us back in more familiar territory, tonally speaking. The liner notes discuss the relationship between the two players aligning in ways two dancers may align: one leader, one follower, amid moments of tension. A clearly defined melody is peppered throughout with chromatic color.
Four hands, or two pianos, is not a new concept or new idea. But there are composers who are writing compositions for this combination and Quattro Mani is up to the task of realizing their vision. The playing by Beck and Grace is first rate. The recording was made in an auditorium, which has a sympathetic acoustic but lacks the very best in recorded sound. The decision for the buyer will focus around the music. This is virtuosic music that makes demands both on the performers and the listeners. Musical innovation is important in every genre of music, including high art music. Just be forewarned: this is not poorly wrought music, but it is less mainstream. I applaud the ensemble and their friends for bringing these pieces to light through this recording.