Duo Recital Yaara Tal & Andreas Groethuysen
Saint-Saëns / Debussy / Th. Ysaÿe / R. Strauss

Druckerei, Baden/CH, 2017-02-25

3-star rating


2017-02-27 — Original posting

Yaara Tal, Andreas Groethuysen (© Michael Leis)
Yaara Tal, Andreas Groethuysen (© Michael Leis)

Introduction

The Artists

Among the piano duos (piano, 4-hands, two pianos), the Duo Yaara Tal & Andreas Groethuysen is among the world’s top performers. Yaara Tal was born 1955 in Israel, Andreas Groethuysen 1956 in Munich. Their career as a piano duo goes back as far as 1985, so they are now looking back to over 30 years of a common career. As the organizer explained, many of their recordings have reference status. The ensemble explores the depth of the duo repertoire: Yaara Tal explained that there are some 5000 compositions for two pianos and piano 4-hands—they will not run out of repertoire any time soon. Information on the artists is also found on Wikipedia.

The Program

For this recital in the context of Piano District, at the Druckerei Baden, the artists selected well-known names—names almost too well-known? That picture is deceptive, though: three of the five compositions in the program are rarely played transcriptions of orchestral works for two pianos, and one of the names isn’t what it seemed to be at a first glance. So, the evening was likely not to be an event simply to “feel well, lean back and enjoy”. Rather, probably a concert that calls for a differentiated comparison with the original, orchestral version of the transcriptions.

Saint-Saëns: Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, op.35

The Composition

Already the first composition of the evening looked like a little puzzle: “Variations … Beethoven … op.35”. That must be referring to the famous “25 Variations with Fugue in E♭ major, op.35“, also known as “Eroica” Variations, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)—or rather not? Of course not!

This is the op.35 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). The composer wrote this in 1874. The variations are on a theme by Beethoven, but not the famous “Eroica” theme. Actually, one could see some common features between Beethoven’s and Saint-Saëns’ op.35. Also the latter starts his work with an introduction that is based on a fragment, a sub-set of the theme: Beethoven uses the bass line of the main theme, Saint-Saëns merely picks the jumping chords of the first two bars, which does not reveal the actual theme at all. And both variation sets culminate in a fugue. But that’s about where the similarities end. Here’s the structure of Saint-Saëns’ op.,35, with the annotations:

  • Introduction: Moderato assai
  • Theme: Tempo di Minuetto
  • Variation_1: Allegro
  • Variation_2: Poco più mosso
  • Variation_3: Tempo del Tema
  • Variation_4: Molto allegro
  • Variation_5: Moderato assai
  • Variation_6: Presto leggerissimo
  • Variation_7: Alla marcia funebre (Allegro moderato) — Tempo del Tema
  • Variation_8: Allegro (Fuga)
  • Variation_9: Presto — Andante — Presto

The Performance

Introduction & Theme

The introduction starts with staccato octaves in the bass, separated by rests. Saint-Saëns inserts two wide-spanning arpeggios, the staccato octaves change into crescendo chords, tension builds up and culminates in a long trill and a one-bar cadenza. After a fermata, the theme sets in.

The theme is from a “remote corner” in Beethoven’s sonata oeuvre: the first part of the Trio from the Menuetto (third movement) in the Piano Sonata No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3 (“The Hunt”).

The theme itself remains close to Beethoven’s original: in the transcription, Beethoven’s score is split into bars that alternate between the primo and secondo parts. In the repeat of the A-part, the roles are switched between the two players. Technically, that transcription isn’t as easy as it may sound: the challenge is to maintain accurate timing of the pairs of chords, across rests, switching parts, and agogics, such that the overall, continuous rhythmic structure stays intact. This requires absolute familiarity of the partner’s rhythmic and agogic feel / sense. With these artists, however, this familiarity is simply natural, given the 32 years of their cooperation as a duo.

Variations

The pianistic setting of the subsequent nine variations is quite attractive and demanding. Already the first variation is a technical challenge in the articulation of the fast semiquaver notes. the same could be said about variations 4 and the last one, No.9. Variation 5 is capricious, quite attractive, but only in the funeral march in variation 6, Saint-Saëns dares to step outside of the realm of the Vienna classics.

Thereafter, the introduction appears to return (Tempo del tema), building up tension again. What follows is a fairly conventional fugue, sounding baroque, with a stretta, leading into a technically demanding final variation. The latter seemed to challenge the (seemingly) somewhat clumsy piano mechanics.

Conclusion

Sadly, most of the variations (the exception is No.7) turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. Musically, as a composition, not in the essentially flawless performance. To me, it felt as if the composer did not dare taking any risks, largely staying within the confines of a rather meager imitation of Beethoven’s style. In my opinion, Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, op.40 would have been the far better, more impressive and more effective choice for opening the concert.

On top of the limitations of the composition as such, I realized (right from the very first notes), the piano tuning was anything but perfect, which of course didn’t help the overall impression.

Debussy: La mer, L.109 (arr. André Caplet)

The Composition

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) composed his symphonic work “La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre” (“The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra”) between 1903 and 1905. By now, this is one of Debussy’s most popular works for orchestra. It comes in three parts:

  1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer (“From dawn to noon on the sea”)
  2. Jeux des vagues (“Play of the waves”)
  3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (“Dialog between the wind and the sea”)

In this concert, we heard a transcription of Debussy’s score for two pianos by a friend of the composer, André Caplet (1878 – 1925). Such a transcription is a risky, demanding undertaking. And in my opinion, this was only partly successful:

The Performance

De l’aube à midi sur la mer

To me, the first part in particular felt far away from the subtle, atmospheric quality of the original, orchestral version—even if the coming and going of the waves / tides were quite impressive, both as transcription, as well as in the performance. The pianistic challenge here is in coordinating the rubato in a dense texture (one must keep in mind that the two pianists can’t see each other’s hands!). And also here, the bad tuning in the bass register was irritating, to say the least.

Jeux des vagues

I liked this movement much more—as a composition (a true masterwork!), also Caplet’s transcription, as well as the virtuosic performance, the atmospheric interpretation by Tal & Groethuysen.

Dialogue du vent et de la mer

I was equally happy about the last part: in its calm segments, this seemed to evoke the gentle singing of Aeolian harps over the subtle curling of waves. Then, the wind freshened up to a stiff breeze, later, in a second build-up, evolved into a veritable storm. The performance was enthralling, with jazzy rhythmic elements: excellent!

Théophile Ysaÿe: Variations on an original theme, op.10

The Composition

The first composition after the intermission seemed to point to a familiar name. However, that composition was not by the famous Belgian violinist and conductor Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931), but by his younger brother, the pianist and composer Théo (Théophile) Ysaÿe (1865 – 1918). The latter is largely unknown. He only left a small oeuvre of mostly orchestral music (up to op.18). His Variations on an original theme for two pianos, op.10, are annotated as follows:

  1. Assez modéré, tranquille
  2. Variation_1: Un peu plus animé
  3. Variation_2: Décidé, alerte
  4. Variation_3: Très vif et légèrement
  5. Variation_4: Plus lent, sans rigueur
  6. Variation_5: Assez lent, grave
  7. Variation_6: Pas trop vite, et bien rythmé. En animant
  8. Movement initial

The Performance

As Andreas Groethuysen explained in his short introduction, Théo Ysaÿe’s compositions frequently appear to allude to music by César Franck (1822 – 1890). To me, this was clearly confirmed already in the theme for these variations. But there were other allusions, too: the playful second variation reminded me of the busy textures in the piano music by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847). In the third variation, Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie from the Préludes, Livre I (L.117) came to mind.

The first variation is capricious, virtuosic, demanding; variation 4 de-escalates towards the extended fifth variation. That latter initially appeared to listen into the fading harmonies (but sadly also into the interferences from badly tuned strings), later appears to revolt through trills in two build-ups. The last variation is agile, enthralling, and very demanding—not so much as composition, but technically, for the artist. Falling cascades of chords lead back to the initial theme.

Presenting, performing this composition certainly is a valuable, interesting undertaking, even though the music will never make it into the charts, will never be popular in concerts or in recordings.

Debussy: Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, L.86

The Composition

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) composed his famous “Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”) at age 32, in 1894. This is not only a true masterpiece by a master composer, but in this case, it was the composer himself who did the transcription for two pianos—and Debussy was an excellent pianist, needless to say.

The Performance

Debussy (and the performers, of course) managed to transfer the dreamy, atmospheric, magical scenery in the orchestral version onto the two—essentially percussive—instruments. In this piece, the Duo Tal & Groethuysen switched roles, in that Yaara Tal (sitting on the right-hand side, at the piano without lid) now played the primo (or rather prima) part.

Baden, Druckerei, stage with 2 pianos (© Lea Kyburz)Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28 (arr. Otto Singer Jr.)

The Composition

With the last piece in the official program, we heard another masterpiece—this time by a German composer, Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949). Strauss wrote his Tondichtung (symphonic poem) Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), op.28, in 1895. The score for two pianos is a transcription by Otto Singer Jr. (1863 – 1931).

The Performance

Even though it’s a “third party transcription”, I found this piece absolutely compelling, fascinating. It’s music full of humor, in which the mood, the atmosphere sometimes appears to change almost with every bar—multifaceted, a true kaleidoscope! Here, the rubato, the frequent changes if rhythm and tempo are an extreme challenge on the ability of the two artists to coordinate their playing. Again, one needs to keep in mind that the coordination is done merely through eye contact, maybe slight gestures / movements with the head: the partner’s hands are out of sight!

Encores, Conclusion

It’s only with the last two pieces that I felt that the two artists ran up to their top form & performance. I’m not sure whether the undeniable quality of the compositions influenced my impression—and/or whether it also stimulated the artists? In any case, it’s predominantly the impressions from these two compositions which I took back home from  this concert.

The culmination of the last two pieces stimulated a lively applause. The artists responded with two encores:

  • A waltz paraphrase on Der Rosenkavalier (“The Knight of the Rose” or “The Rose-Bearer”), op.59 by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), composed / created by the Russian pianist Victor Babin (1908 – 1972). It’s an entertaining, little piece, cherry-picking from Strauss’ well-known opera. [“cherry-picking” in German has an equivalent “Rosinen pflücken” (raisin picking)—so, I wrote in my notes “Rosinenkavalier”… 🙂 ]
  • The second encore was a little Viennese march by the violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)—a short, entertaining cabinet (or salon) piece.

Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.



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