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CD: AmazonUS

Two Pianists
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35 (1862/3) (arr. two pianos Constantin Silvestri) [22:36]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Paganini Variations for two pianos (1941) [5:21]
Anton Stepanovich ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suite No. 1 for two pianos, Op. 15 [13:16]
Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op. 23 'Silhouettes' [16:42]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
El Salón México (1932-36) (arr. two pianos Leonard Bernstein) [8:44]
Magalhães-Schumann Piano Duo: (Luis Magalhães (piano); Nina Schumann (piano))
rec. 16-20 June 2008, Endler Hall, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. DDD
TWOPIANISTS RECORDS 103902-2 [66:39]
Experience Classicsonline

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 reviewed both CDs (see below). For this new disc I was pleased to find that a superb sound quality has 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 for solo violin followed by 14 variations. The Finales are virtuosic. Here we have the Paganini Variations in the 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, brillante is conveyed with rapt fire and passion ending with an extended Coda, Finale.

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, energico the 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 marked Presto, ma non troppo.

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 two pianos 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 Variations 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 marked Allegretto has 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 marked Allegro I 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 a spectacular and exciting Polish dance one can easily imagine a boisterous scene of freely flowing drink. 

Subtitled ‘Silhouettes the Suite 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 (The Scholar) is appropriately serious and academic with La Coquette (The Coquette) demonstrating its light and frivolous attributes. Powerful and knockabout drama underpins Polichinelle (The Buffoon) that curiously contains suggestions of the sacred temperament of peeling church bells. Le Rêveur (The Dreamer) 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 (The Dancer) evokes the heavily perfumed aroma of Spain. In this performance I could almost visualise the battling matador performing in a Madrid bullring.

New York-born Aaron Copland composed his orchestral work El Salón México 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 for solo piano.

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.

Michael Cookson   

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 Variations. 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 (tr. 28) is grandly imperial and is bound to impress. The arrangement is most skilfully done.

Lutosławski's piano-slam Paganini Variations was 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 of 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 is played to the shuddering hilt. Splendid stuff. You can really feel the excitement in the playing. La Danseuse has Hispanic 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 Dances. 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 is a delight with its neatly turned rhythmic touches. The final Slava is 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.

Rob Barnett



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