When was the last time you heard a recital of four-hand piano music? At one time it was all the rage. Long before there was an iPod in every ear, there was a piano in every living room. And people played them, sometimes alone and sometimes with a second player; hence, four-hand piano music.
But professional four-hand piano music in these digital days? It’s never done — well, almost never. On Saturday, February 2, the University Musical Society will present a project by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center called A Celebration of the Keyboard: Music for Piano, Four Hands. Those four hands will be provided by three duos made up from CMS pianists Wu Han, Inon Barnatan, Gilbert Kalish, Anne-Marie McDermott, André-Michel Schub, and Gilles Vonsattel.
The works on the program are divided between those for four hands at one piano and those for four hands at two pianos. The former include Mozart’s Andante and Five Variations in G Major and Fauré’s Dolly Suite. The latter include Mendelssohn’s Andante and Variations in B-flat Major, Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and, towering above all the others, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.
For some, imagining what Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Fauré’s supremely elegant music might sound like played by four hands is relatively easy. Superb craftsmen as they were, all can be counted on to match the material to the medium. But for most of us, it takes some good guesswork to imagine what Lutoslawski’s Polish modernist take on Paganini’s famous theme would sound like. And for almost everybody, Stravinsky’s epoch-making Le Sacre du Printemps shorn of its orchestration is simply inconceivable. Without the mighty modern symphony orchestra’s screaming strings, keening woodwinds, blasting brass, and bludgeoning percussion, what’s left?
As those who’ve heard one of the rare recordings of Le Sacre in its composer’s four-hand arrangement will attest, what’s left is revelatory. Often lost in the orchestral undergrowth are themes, harmonies, and counterpoints that stand out starkly illuminated in the clear, hard light cast by only four hands. In its familiar orchestral incarnation, Le Sacre sounds like life itself burgeoning forth in all its streaming multitudes. In its two-piano incarnation, it sounds like a clockwork mechanism cunningly constructed to simulate life. Whether this is a reduction or a refinement is up to the listener — but there’s no doubt that the sound of four hands flailing away at Le Sacre has to be heard to be believed.
[Review published February 2008]