Four teams made the finale of the Piano Duos, including two that I heard in the second round where they performed the ARD commissioned work, “loops’n grains”, by Minas Borboudakis. Those two duos were the Josiane Marfurt – Fabienne Romer Duo (playing together in their first year) and the Gröbner – Trisko Duo.
If the Marfurt-Romer Duo’s appearance in the finale was a little plain, in that dear, well-behaved, mannered, "Mozart for proper young society ladies"-way, their second round performance of Liszt’s Don Giovanni Fantasy was nothing like that. You may like the work or not—a lot of note spinning, admittedly—but it is rambunctious, over the top, strangely loveable… and especially for me, just back from a mesmerizing Don Giovanni experience in Salzburg. Hearing the Liszt-explorations on familiar tunes was like getting postcards from a far-away friend; a wonderful mélange of Don Giovanni’s greatest hits replete with ten minute flamboyant finale… riotously funny actually, in the best—entertaining—sense. The whole piece was performed with the bravura bravado it elicits, demands, deserves; Marfurt-Romer’s tone sympathetic, their touch soft, their legato fluid, their fingers nimble. The incredibly full bodied beginning was played with tons of oomph and still completely clear, unmuddled. I liked their performance of “loops’n grains”, too: Their prepared notes–high and low–sounded a good deal nicer than the other duos elicited and they made much more sense of those parts… now the prepared strings low sounded like a dead bell, not an ugly piano, which was the case with Gröbner – Trisko and the Russian duo Olga Kozlpva – Nikolay Kozhin. Incidentally, their second round Mozart sonata (K521) was similar to the Mozart in the finale: “Maybe trying to get a little more from the notes [than Gröbner – Trisko]… but getting stuck at impeccable loveliness, harmless” is what I wrote down… which is pretty much what ended up not getting them any prize (or even honorable mention) in the finale. Their rendition of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos K365, supported by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Poppen, was faultless and harmless in equal measure, as described above. Mozart that was very “nice”, but unfortunately with those damning quotes around it.
Gröbner – Trisko didn’t get a placement prize either, but they garnered the prize for the best performance of the commissioned work and if a prize had been given for best dressed Duo, they would have swept that category, too, appearing, as they did, in matching gowns of ruby red and tree frog green/mustard yellow, as lush as their blonde manes. Shallow focus? Hardly. For one, why should one ignore the importance of the visual when the artists themselves affirm it so boldly? And while choice of dress is obviously not as important as playing the right notes  or a rhythmically taut, groovy Allegro in the E-flat Major Concert , it is inevitably part and parcel of any artist’s package—solo or ensemble—and it would be folly to ignore how it influences our perception when it does, one way or the other.
In the second round I was more impressed by their Rachmaninoff Suite No.2 op.17, which was performed with the ample romantic gestus that this wild and luxuriant work—in many ways similar to his famous piano concertos—needs to take off. Only the middle movement lacked the flash and teetered at the brink of boring. Their Mozart sonata (K497, for four hands, rather than two pianos) had a particularly lovely, swift middle movement, and their “loops’n grains” was given a fully bodied workout. Hearing the work for the first time, I was still busy listening to the music, rather than the performance, and didn’t catch those elements that propelled their interpretation above that of their Swiss colleagues (except that their prepared strings sounded—purposly?—much more ungainly). The piece itself has a Morse code-like beat that permeates everything, sends the players to alternate ends of the keyboard in a first part that peters out slowly while still sounding the same… and gets punctuated by a shrill single high note. Then it continues, deliberately, with a modulation into a second, halting part before gathering speed and drive again; all that unalterable mechanical way. Clusters that are played with the flat hand and a few more extremes on the piano are thought out… which makes for reasonably attractive, if not thoroughly enchanting hearing. If there was one particular sense I came away from hearing it three times, it was that of having been faced with an emasculated Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.
The American Piano Duo Susan & Sarah Wang, twins from New Jersey and 2007 graduates from the Manhattan School of Music, got bonus points for choosing a concerto different than the Mozart work. (A pity none of the duos that had chosen the wonderful Poulenc concerto or the Martinů work made it to the finale; mediocre Mozart being rather more a punishment than you might think.) The Double-Wang Duo chose Mendelssohn, an underrated concerto that can be propelled to excellence with a gutsy enough performance. Unfortunately the Wangs’ performance was everything but gutsy, it was more a case of the nerves, with unnecessary missteps permeating the first movement, and a nimble, but tinkly sound. The most gorgeous moment came with the middle movement when the summer-outfit of the BRSO (but with their marvelous first flutist Henrik Wiese on duty!) wallowed in the lush Adagio non troppo introduction. Not having heard the duo on previous occasions, there is no way of knowing how that performance played into the decision of the jury to give them a third prize, except that based on the performance in the finale alone, I might have seen the Austrians slightly ahead of the American twins in their partner-look of (supremely tasteful) shoulder-free burgundy dresses.
The final duo of the day was the Remnant Piano Duo—an odd name; suggesting something like the two players from their graduation class left without a soloist career. Hyun Joo June and Hee Jin June—sisters from Seoul, trained in St. Petersburg—are actually a very successful and longevous team, having started playing as the Remnant Duo in 1997 and clearing out top prizes at competitions ever since. Their performance of Mozart’s E-flat Major concerto was subtly better, and at the same time in a different league. Their experience, not to say routine, came through fully, in a gusty, brawny Allegro, where there was finally a sense of dance and a little lilt and some tension-release in the ritardandos. The Andante, fluent, neat, glib, went by quickly enough and the Rondeaux–Allegro, although on the see-saw side, was playful. That convinced the jury to give them the top—a very appropriate second—prize and the listeners were convinced, too, bestowing them the audience prize. (Which goes to show that Mozart with a pulse can outweigh a pair of unflattering, white and garish red maternity dresses.)
All pictures courtesy ARD International Music Competition, © Dorothee Falke
|W.A. Mozart, Concertos for 2 & 3 Pianos,|
Lupu, Perrahia / ECO
|F. Mendelssohn-B., Concertos for 2 Pianos,|
Frith, Tinney / RTE Sinfonietta / Ó Duinn