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S & H Concert Review

Duos ex machina: Nancarrow, Stahnke, Volans, Weir, Ligeti; Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, The Warehouse, 27th November 2003 (H T-W)



Five years ago, Matthew Greenall, the director of the British Music Information Centre, devised an annual new music series of around 15 concerts devoted to a mixture of established works and promising new composers interpreted by some of the finest contemporary music specialists. Ever since, ‘Cutting Edge’ events have been, and are, taking place each Thursday between the end of September and the middle of December at the Warehouse in Theed Street, two minutes walking distance south of Waterloo Station.

This initiative has established itself as the most important autumn event for new music in London. Here, the famous Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo gave its long overdue London debut with an exciting program, headed "Duos ex Machina". The Argentine pianist Helena Bugallo and the American pianist Amy Williams met while studying at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Since 1995, they have been committed to presenting concerts of contemporary music at the highest possible level.  Their repertoire is enormous encompassing substantial late twentieth-century works by Cage, Reich, Kurtág, Stockhausen, Tiensuu, Kagel and Sciarrino as well as endless world premieres, many of which very written especially for the Duo.

Helena now resides in Basel, while Amy teaches composition at the University of Chicago. But they come together frequently, to rehearse new works and to play all over the world. In 2004, they will release their first CD (Wergo) featuring the complete music for piano solo and piano duet by Conlon Nancarrow. Later this year, they will record for Bridge Records works by Stefan Wolpe and Morton Feldman.

In their program note they point out that the evenings title "refers to both the rhythmic-mechanical character of much of the music included as well as to the aural and theatrical artifices extracted from the combination of the two instruments (as implied in the phrase deus ex machina)."

Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), next to Ives surely the most inventive and significant American composer, had long been disillusioned about the fact that pianists were unable to play his extremely difficult music. Therefore, he decided early on in his life to compose entirely for the mechanical Player Piano. He left us more than 50 studies for this instrument, of which some in recent years have been arranged for piano duet to be played on one piano.

The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo opened its concert with the London premiere of the studies Nos. 9, 3d and 19, followed in the second half by the studies Nos. 18, 6 and 15, arranged by Erik Ona (18 and 6), the late Ivar Mikhashoff (15), Amy Williams (3d) and Helena Bugallo (9 and 19). It turned out to be a magical event to listen to these sometimes romantic or jazzy, abrupt or wild, but always deeply original pieces full of wit and surprises. They show a genius, of which Ligeti wrote: "This music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed but at the same time emotional?.." The two ladies understood it perfectly, to bring the mechanical element to light but with incredible charm and a furioso technique, where one never knew if the intermingling of the hands would not suddenly end in disaster. Moments, such as turning the page at the right place, had a flabbergasting sense of organization about them.

For the second piece in their program they turned to the prolific German composer Manfred Stahnke (1951), a student of Wolfgang Fortner and Klaus Huber (and since 1974 of Ligeti), who currently teaches in  Hamburg. They gave the British premiere of "Stereo Partota", his own arrangement for two pianos for the Bugallo-Williams Duo of an earlier piano work in six movements – "Partota" (1982-86). To every one’s astonishment, the two grands were suddenly positioned as far apart as possible, Bugallo playing in the front left corner with her back to the audience and Williams in the far right corner playing with her face towards the audience. This had an enormous acoustic effect as the harmonising or corresponding sound of the pianos met in the middle, somehow creating the power of an entire orchestra. How those two pianists kept in contact, to recreate this mainly tonal structure of Busoni proportions (the impact not unlike Nancarrow), is beyond understanding; it seemed that even the slightest movement of a body or a head had some inner meaning. It was interesting that this work had no connection either to Ligeti or to microtonal music, for which Stahnke is well known. To quote Stahnke from an interview in 1990, "Ligeti suggested: try to find a melting pot in yourself somehow: He said, let’s not just make a collage out of what we hear, what we see. We have to be open and we have to react, but we have to find a specific way to put things together so that a third way will emerge?"  Here, his third way was extremely impressive in its colours and rhythmical structures, but also quite Germanic.


The Duo finished the first half with "Cicada"(1994) by Kevin Volans, in his own words "my first genuinely minimalist piece." Of course, one can call it `proportional temporal relationships in a sequential order´, but what came over, at least for me, was extreme boredom; many tiny dynamic and rhythmical changes in this piece seemed overly repetitive and became less and less audible. Minimalism has played an important part in the past; now one should open ones´ mind and be creative in a satisfying way, especially at a time when the compositional spectrum is as wide as it has ever been. Music has to tell us something, has to wake us up.  But the conversations during the interval made it clear that a small part of the audience still favour indulging in meditation.

The second half opened with "Adnamurchan Point" (1990) by Judith Weir, a charming `continuous variation of a short fragment of Hebridean melody heard at the outset of the piece´. By now, the two grands were finally united standing next to one other. Three further Studies for Piano Player made one wish to hear even more of Nancarrow´s breathtaking textural polyphony, but it was left to one of his most outspoken admirers, to finish the evening in truly great style.

György Ligeti wrote his remarkable "Three pieces for Two Pianos" in 1976. They are called Monument, Selbstportrait (mitReich und Riley und Chopin ist auch dabei) und Bewegung, a gigantic composition, which reinvents many influences in a very personal and convincing manner. Its technical demands on the players are enormous. But Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams showed no sign of being overstretched.

Next to the variety of rarely heard pieces those two incredible musicians were the highlight of the whole evening. They understood how to simultaneously create tension and ease; they were constantly in harmony with the music and with each other without ever falling in the habits of pounding their instruments or showing off. They are both deeply rooted in the sadly more and more neglected tradition of exclusively recreating a composers’ intentions with taste and with an instinctive sensitivity for the art of piano playing. 

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt    




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