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S & H Recital Review

John Humphreys and Allan Schiller, piano duet and two pianos, Wigmore Hall, 13th July 2003, (MA)

At 4 o’clock on a scorching Sunday afternoon, a central London concert hall is one of the last places you’d want to be – indeed, I had turned down a chance of a boat trip down the Thames in favour of John Humphrey’s and Allan Schiller’s piano-duet and piano-duo recital in the Wigmore Hall. Though the Hall – hardly surprisingly – wasn’t packed, the nonetheless sizable numbers who turned up were met with a rewardingly unusual programme.

It thus began with the busy textures of Reger’s transcription for piano duet of the Sixth ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto, where the different colours of Bach’s instrumental lines rather get lost in the monotonal sonorities of the piano; it thus becomes more an exercise in polyphonic enthusiasm. Busoni’s imaginative two-piano transcription of Mozart’s Fantasie in F minor, K.608, allowed Humphreys and Schiller to make sense of the texture in a way the Reger had not, and they pushed it to an exciting conclusion. The first half was rounded off with Debussy’s rarely heard En blanc et noir, the sound of two pianos coaxing the composer into unusually rumbustious mood.

The second half was dedicated to Busoni, and especially one of the polyphonic masterpieces of piano-writing, his Fantasia contrappuntistica, in its fourth incarnation, the 1922 recasting of the work for two pianos. It was prefaced with his Improvisation on the Bach Chorale ‘Wie wohl ist mir’, from 1916. It’s not often one gets to watch this work being performed in concert, so it’s fascinating to see how Busoni orchestrates for the sonorities of the piano, how he develops contrasting colours in the two instruments, reserving his strength for the gloriously resonant first full statement of the chorale in both pianos.Humphreys and Schiller judged the pace perfectly.

The Fantasia contrappuntistica is Busoni’s astonishingly inventive creative solution to the unfinished fugue in Bach’s Art of Fugue. There’s little in music as physically exciting as the sound of two pianos on the hunt, but Humphreys and Schiller didn’t give in to the temptation of sheer volume. Instead, they concentrated on the dramaturgy of the piece. It opens (and closes), for example, with the pianos exchanging imperious phrases antiphonally, which Humphreys and Schiller treated as if they were lines from two characters on stage – the Fantasia contrappuntistica requires some attention of its listeners, but this essentially dramatic approach made it both texturally vivid and architecturally clear.

That was good news; better yet is that Humphreys and Schiller are taking both Busoni works, and others, into the studio in September, to record them for Naxos. It will be worth waiting for.

Martin Anderson



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