Wednesday 10 May 2017

Pre-echos & connections: GrauSchumacher Piano Duo in Poulenc, Colin McPhee, John Adams

GrauSchumacher - Poulenc, McPhee, Adams - Neos
Poulenc, McPhee, Adams; GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Brad Lubman; Neos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 07 2017
Star rating: 3.5

A disc which reveals surprising links between three 20th century works for two pianos and orchestra

This new disc on the Neos label features music for two pianos and orchestra performed by the German piano duo, Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher (GrauSchumacher Piano Duo), Poulenc's Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra, Colin McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan, toccata for orchestra and two pianos, and John Adams' Grand Pianola Music for two pianos, three female voices, wind ensemble and percussion. The piano duo is joined by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (whose music director from 2017/18 is Robin Ticciati) and conductor Brad Lubman, with Trio Medieval (Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Berit Opheim) in the Adams.

One of Colin McPhee's photographs of Bali from the 1930s
One of Colin McPhee's photographs of Bali from the 1930s
At first sight it seems an unlikely programme, and only the Poulenc is a conventional concerto with the other two works the pianos play a more concertante role. Yet there are intriguing parallels between the three work. American composer Colin McPhee was a notable figure who lived in Bali in the 1930s and used to play four-handed piano transcriptions of Balinese gamelan with German musician (and Bali resident) Walter Spies. It would be McPhee who later introduced Benjamin Britten to gamelan, with Britten using it to notable effect in The Prince of the Pagodas and Death in Venice.

McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan contains elements of gamelan transcription, yet what fascinates is how close some of Poulenc's glittering piano and orchestra textures in his concerto come to McPhee's. In fact, along with many other French composers, Poulenc heard gamelan in France the year before he wrote the concerto, at the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931. Even more revelatory is how much McPhee's multi-layered techniques in Tabuh-Tabuhan provide striking pre-echoes of minimalism.

The disc opens with the Poulenc concerto, written in 1932 under the patronage of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac. It is a witty, stylistically polyglot affair, and I did wonder how much sympathy conductor Brad Lubman had with Poulenc's style. The opening is rather emphatic, with strong accents in the orchestra, and in all three movements Lubman's speeds tend to the steady, when you want something with more of a sense of impulsive rubato. Overall, I felt a lack of elan in both pianos and orchestra. Occasional moments from the soloists do dazzle, but you sense a lack of wit combined with too much sobriety, which is foreign to Poulenc's temperament.

Balinese musician at the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931
Balinese musician at the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931
Things balance out better with Colin McPhee's 1936 piece, Tabuh-Tabuhan. Not strictly a concerto, the pianos form part of the texture yet there is still plenty for the pianists to do. McPhee uses layers of rhythmic patterns over some rather jazzy rhythms. The second movement is quieter and more nocturnal, whilst the third is very much about different textures. As I have said, the pre-echoes of minimalist techniques in the piece are startling, but McPhee includes all manner of cross-cultural references.

The final work brings us far closer to home, John Adams' Grand Pianola Music of 1982. Adams' music is intended to be experience live via a mixing desk with the voices amplified, and Ransom Wilson's 1980s recording with Solisti New York on EMI has very much a sense of the whole being mixed before we hear it. Here, the pianos, instruments and voices are in a rather more natural balance so that the voices of Trio Medieval can be somewhat distant, more of an acoustic aura. This is something I rather like, though there is no information in the CD booklet about how the disc was recorded.

The piece opens with a lovely sense of suspended animation in the music, and the purity of the voices of Trio Medieval really counts here. Though the music does get vibrantly dramatic, the overall feel is of the seductive sound world. The big tune in the final movement comes over brilliantly and there is a terrific shimmer to the textures. I did rather take issue with Rainer Peters' booklet notes here, surely the point of this movement is not just the 'elementary cadential forumula I-V-I' but the aformentioned big tune, something which must have seemed outrageous at the time. Did composers write tunes in 1982?

If you can live with the rather sober and steady account of the Poulenc then this is a disc full of intriguing links and parallels. GrauSchumacher Piano Duo has its own series on Neos so there are plenty of other discs to explore (this is the third of their concerto discs) and another forthcoming one, Fantasias, is piano duets by Purcell arr. Kurtag. Mozart arr. Busoni, Scriabin and Rachmaninov.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra (1932) [19.23]
Colin McPhee (1900-1964) - Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for orchestra and two pianos (1936) [18:49]
John Adams (born 1947) - Grand Pianola Music for two pianos, three female voices, wind ensemble and percussion (1982) [32.39]
GrauSchumacher Piano Duo (Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher)
Trio Medieval
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Brad Lubman (conductor
Recorded Teldex Studio Berlin, 13-17 October 2014
NEOS 21703 1CD [71.02]
Available from Amazon.

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