The pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann (Swiss) and Keisuke Nakagoshi
(Japan - USA) joined forces and created the ZOFO duet in 2009. Unlike
most piano duets, ZOFO perform the one-piano-four-hands repertoire
exclusively; not two-piano works. They both enjoy the music of the
century, and so for their first concert together they
chose to play Debussy, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Harold Shapero. This,
their first CD, provides a fascinating program and spectacular performances
to match, so I am not surprised that the record has just become a
Grammy nominee! I only hope that after they have achieved fame they
will reveal the meaning of “ZOFO”.
Bernstein’s flamboyant Candide
Overture feels surprisingly
comfortable in these new clothes. Its orchestral version is a firework
display of colors but the piano provides an alternative palette and
is as scintillating as the original. The music prances happily along,
collecting motifs by the armful and throwing them up in the air. The
performers play with enthusiasm and élan. They are not afraid
to apply brute force when needed, and convey all the humor of this
light-hearted gallop of a piece. It’s vivaciousness and happiness
all the way.
Harold Shapero was Bernstein’s contemporary, classmate and friend.
They often played four-hands together during their student years at
Harvard. It was there and then that Shapero composed his Four-Hands
, dedicated to Bernstein and premiered by the two friends
in 1941. The first movement starts slowly and mysteriously - sparse,
starry night-music. The tempo quickens to a jumpy staccato, and the
narration enlivens, echoing the cheerful, carefree air of the Candide
Overture. Unlike Bernstein, Shapero’s pranks always have good
manners. The music has a certain grid-like quality, but the performers
play with light and shade and keep things fluid and non-mechanical.
The second movement is more static, with accents and echoes. It’s
in the relaxed, slow-rocking lullaby style of Satie. Potent imperative
chords are another recurring element. The finale bustles merrily:
no hidden meanings here, just youth and joy. The performers play with
excellent drive. The Sonata is a student’s work, not too deep
or sophisticated, but it is technically well written and even memorable.
Although the style is modern it is accessible and enjoyable, sprinkling
the genial attitude of Mozart or Ravel with some seasoning from Stravinsky.
Six Épigraphes Antiques
is less popular than it deserves.
This is first-class Debussy. Originally, the composer wrote this music
to accompany recitation of the “Bilitis” poems by Pierre
Louÿs. Much later he reworked it for piano four hands. The suite
was orchestrated by Ansermet and I love that version. However, the
same thing happens here as with Mussorgsky’s Pictures At
: while the orchestration may dazzle with sheer opulence
of color, the piano version dazzles with the thought “How could
he do the same with just a piano?” The dark sensual character
of the poems is reflected in the music. The titles (such as “That
the night may be propitious”
) are not really important:
just read through them to get into the mood. These images carry a
noble patina and the music speaks in hushed voices. Diaphanous veils
sway in the darkness, and subtly slightly discernible scents float
on the breeze. This ancient perfumed atmosphere is sustained across
each of these six pieces.
The first two works on the disc - as well as the last - could tolerate
a drier, more percussive sound, and even benefit from it. When it
comes to Debussy, we encounter quite a different sound-world, and
the performers adapt their tone admirably. Their touch is soft, their
pace dreamy, they breathe the fragrance and walk on cat’s paws,
in a very stylishly Debussian manner.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
was originally composed for
piano four hands and then orchestrated by the composer, so we actually
hear the original version here. It is less colorful than the “customary”
orchestral version, but the effect is no less profound. The intrinsic
rhythmic details are more starkly exposed in the more percussive piano
presentation. It makes for interesting listening and, in this performance,
it’s certainly gripping. ZOFO play with raw power and high voltage.
The “fast and furious” places like the ending of the First
Part are very impressive. Some of the more “slow and mystic”
episodes such as the beginning of the Second Part, lack mystery and
are weak in tension. Others, like Ritual Action of the Ancestors
are eerie and enthralling. One problem I have with this performance
is the evenness of the dynamic level: some parts, like the Sacrificial
, are too even dynamically, just loud and loud and loud.
This may be the result of technical recording decisions: it is very
close, so it is difficult to distinguish between the “Fifty
Shades of Loud”. For comparison, the recording made by the
is less percussive and more atmospheric, more remotely
recorded and as a consequence more scenic; after all, this is a ballet.
ZOFO’s grand piano sound is reverberant, sometimes ringing,
never neutral; this creates a less natural feeling. Where the Yorks
mesmerize, the ZOFO astonish. As a result, in the Yorks’ hands
the result is more listenable and there is no danger of the percussive
keyboard impacts getting on your nerves.
Overall, this is a very good disc. The four diverse works sound well
together. The recording is very close and detailed, which works to
the good for the more introvert Debussy and Shapero, but is sometimes
over the top in the more energetic Bernstein and Stravinsky. Anyway,
I wish them luck in the Grammy stakes, and will look out for other
records by these spectacular four hands.
Masterwork Index: Rite