The Magalhães-Schumann Piano Duo was founded in 1999 at
the University of North Texas and is now based at Stellenbosch
University in South Africa. From their website
I see that the duo in 2006 released a recording of Rachmaninov’s
complete works for two pianos originally on the Universal label
and now on the duo's own label. My colleague Rob Barnett has
CDs (see below).
this new disc I was pleased to find that a superb sound quality
been provided by the sound engineers. The well written and helpful
booklet notes were another advantage. This is exciting late-Romantic
repertoire and on this evidence these artists certainly deserve
to be far better known.
The first score on this disc is Brahms’s Variations
on a theme by Paganini
, Op. 35, conceived in 1862, completed
a year later and published in 1865. This large-scale score for
solo piano is structurally divided into Books 1 and 2. Each consists
of a theme on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices
solo violin followed by 14 variations. The Finales
virtuosic. Here we have the Paganini Variations
arrangement for two pianos prepared by the conductor Constantin
Silvestri (1913-1969). This is an outstanding performance from
Magalhães and Schumann and I would single out a number
of the variations for special praise. In Book 1 the first variation
is muscular and sturdy. Notable are the syncopated chords in
variation VI and I enjoyed the blazing ardour of variation VII.
Variation XI is evocative of the soft and gentle strains of a
musical box in a child’s nursery and variation XIII is
overtly Hungarian gypsy style music. Marvellously interpreted
variation XIV marked Deciso
with rapt fire and passion ending with an extended Coda
Book 2 opens with a peaceful yet robust rendition of the theme.
In the first variation I was struck by a circling effect with
the music going round and round like a roundabout in contrast
to the attractive variation IV: a refined waltz. A wealth of
arpeggios abound in variation VIII and there is an unswerving
and impressive power to variation IX. Marked Feroce
furious strength of variation X is remarkable. I found the duo
had mastered the challenges of variation XI with aplomb and the
nocturne-like F minor variation XII has a gently swaying and
rocking quality. The duo respond with distinction to the complex
writing of the final variation XIV that leads to the extended Coda
In 1939 the Polish born Witold Lutosławski, an officer cadet
in the Polish first army was taken prisoner by the Nazis near
Lubin. After only eight days in German captivity Lutosławski
managed to escape with several others and walked the 400 kilometres
back to Warsaw. The Variations on a theme by Paganini for
was composed during the war years in 1941 and
is based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice
. Almost forty
years later in 1978 Lutosławski prepared a version of the Paganini
for piano and orchestra. Burning with powerful
passion one is struck by the amount of pent up anger conveyed
in the present interpretation which also cleverly avoids the
bombastic. Providing a brief respite from 1:42-2:29 the writing
takes on a gentle introspection. The final section comes as a
fast and furious outburst, yet the duo provide a certain quality
of lightness on their feet.
In the last few years Russian composer Anton Arensky and his
close contemporary Sergei Taneyev have received an increased
amount of exposure. Arensky wrote five suites for two pianos.
The first two, contained here, come from the 1890s; a highly
productive period of his life. The three movement Suite No.
1 for two pianos
in F major, Op. 15 was completed in 1890.
The opening movement, an attractive Romance
a gently rocking quality. This is romantic writing that evokes
a strong sense of love and passion. The score has a central section
that increases in weight and intensity. A Valse
found strangely suggestive of ballroom dancing on a seaside pier.
The enthralling fluctuations in dynamics add to the interest
and appeal of the Valse
. Concluding with a Polonaise
spectacular and exciting Polish dance one can easily imagine
a boisterous scene of freely flowing drink.
No. 2 for two pianos
, Op. 23 followed a couple of years later
in 1892. The score has a programmatic element with each of the
five portrait-like movements (Silhouettes
) given picturesque
French titles: The language of the opening portrait Le Savant
Scholar) is appropriately serious and academic with La Coquette
Coquette) demonstrating its light and frivolous attributes. Powerful
and knockabout drama underpins Polichinelle
that curiously contains suggestions of the sacred temperament
of peeling church bells. Le Rêveur
is a soft and gentle cameo with a central section of gradually
increasing tension and anxiety. What Arensky had in mind I’m
unsure yet the final portrait La Danseuse
evokes the heavily perfumed aroma of Spain. In this performance
I could almost visualise the battling matador performing in a
New York-born Aaron Copland composed his orchestral work El
during the period 1932-6. It has
become one of his most performed pieces. In 1932 Carlos Chávez
had taken Copland to a nightclub in Mexico City called ‘El
Salón México’. This was undoubtedly the major
stimulus for the score for which he adapted themes of Mexican
folk melodies. Before the orchestral version was premiered as
early as 1935 pianist John Kirkpatrick had made a two piano reduction
of the score for himself and Copland to play. The reduction for
two pianos, four-hands contained here was arranged by Copland’s
friend Leonard Bernstein who even altered a section to improve
the theatrical interest of the score. Bernstein had earlier in
1941 prepared a version of El Salón México
Thrilling and flamboyant, tender and passionate, vibrant and
dynamic, Magalhães and Schumann excel in the raptly uplifting
and colourful writing of El Salón México
The talented Bernstein certainly knew that a two piano version
would achieve increased power and drama. What a remarkable ending
to the score as an uprush of vitality and zest certainly blasts
the cobwebs away.
I am puzzled why I have not come across the excellent duo of
Magalhães and Schumann previously. What an outstanding
partnership they make and just where have they been hiding? I
was especially impressed by their unison and the magnificent
range of keyboard colour achieved is remarkable. Playing their
stunning Bösendorfer model 280 concert grand pianos the
assured duo provide interpretations that could scarcely be bettered.
There is much excellent music to enjoy here. In fact I loved
this disc from start to finish.
And a further review from Rob Barnett ...
I was introduced to Schumann-Magalhaes by their Universal recording
of Rachmaninov's complete works for two pianos. I had put that
set to one side as other discs had come in - how often that happens!
I was encouraged to come back by the arrival of another disc
on their own label: TwoPianists.
They work up a real turbulent lather in the Brahms Paganini
. Every single one of the thirty segments is separately
tracked so it is a delight to listen through and then pick and
choose. The Scorrevole
sounds almost like Rachmaninov
in its quiet chiming delicacy. In fact several episodes heard
in this format remind us how much Rachmaninov owed to Brahms
in his own Paganini Variations
. The Un poco andante
28) is grandly imperial and is bound to impress. The arrangement
is most skilfully done.
Lutosławski's piano-slam Paganini Variations
written for two pianos. Here we are in a cliff-edge zany and
dissonance-allowed zone with superb playing from the duo. More
romantic are the two Arensky Suites. Tchaikovsky worshipper that
he was, these suites are not unduly imitative - unusually for
him though he is always good value. The central Valse
No. 1 with its delicate hesitations and stately confidence is
memorable. The Polonaise
finale of No. 1 is part romp
part grand strut. The Second Suite is in four movements. The
first is the melodramatic Le Savant
, suggestive of the
supernatural and mediums. La Coquette
is suitably … well … coquettish
with a glint in the eye and an inveigling smile. Polichinelle
played to the shuddering hilt. Splendid stuff. You can really
feel the excitement in the playing. La Danseuse
Sevillana overtones and a lofty arrogance as well as seemingly
providing the inspiration for Rachmaninov's most famous prelude.
Copland's El Salon Mexico
is hard going when your memory
has the orchestral version etched deep. Still, the use of quiet
in 2.13 is very effective and affecting but its all too skeletal
and thin textured at 4.12. Where those great drum thwacks should
come the thunder of the two pianos is just not enough. The duo
cannot make up for a full orchestra though I did like enormously
the blood-rush at 6.42. As a playing or concert hall experience
I can imagine the Copland being exhilarating but for home listening
purposes it is wanting. And it’s not the fault of this
duo - any duo team would yield the same result.
Overall then this is one of the finest piano duo discs with some
really exciting playing amid an intrepid choice of repertoire.
I also listened to the duo’s January 2006 two disc set
of the Rachmaninov complete piano duo works (see the duo's website).
The recording took place in the Endler Hall of Stellenbosch University,
South Africa. It’s an attractive set but I did not find
the playing as gripping or as edge-of-the-seat exciting as the
most recent disc.
There is some lovely lilting material and some carefully calculated
phrasing and agogic pauses but the whole thing would have benefited
from the split-second tension of the other disc. There should
have been a tighter ‘rap’ to the last of the Symphonic
. It comes across as relaxed rather than spring-steel
taut. The last few pages should be even more uproarious - almost
out of control. I recommend listening to Kondrashin’s Moscow
Phil recording from the early 1960s - that's the spirit that
needed to be captured. That said, this performance has some enchantingly
quiet playing as in the whisper chimes of the first movement.
Andante II is nicely accented and phrased. Again the playing
is lovingly rounded in the quiet pearlescent writing of the finale.
Very impressive at a poetic level but where is the volcanic upheaval?
I warmed in the Morceaux
to the placid cradling of the
Barcarolle and the skippingly casual scherzo. The charming Valse
a delight with its neatly turned rhythmic touches. The final Slava
alive with the sound of bells as heard on the First Suite. It’s
all nicely turned when it comes to charm but the grand moments
can seem etiolated.
The two suites emerge in better colour. The Barcarolle
is very tightly
twisted and braided by the Duo - very stylish indeed. In fact this music-making
is very good: listen to the hurly-burly bells of Easter in the last movement
of the First Suite - as good as the best I have heard. The Second Suite similarly.
It sports a really exciting and slippery Valse Presto
. I had never before
heard the composer's arrangement for two pianos of the famous Prelude in C sharp
minor. It's nicely done here with a great sense of concentration sustained. It
is good also to have the Polka Italienne
and the Russian Rhapsody
The latter has some fine moments. I just have my reservations about this reading
of the Symphonic Dances