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Three Suites for Two Pianos
Yuhao GUO (b.1992)
Suite Op 30 (2020) [17:40]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suite No 1, Op 15 (1888) [13:34]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Suite No 2, Op 17 (1901) [24:14]
Anke Pan (piano)
Yuhao Guo (piano)
rec. Nov, 2020 at Alfried Krupp Saal, Philharmonien Essen
ARS PRODUKTION ARS38589 [55:49]

This is the first recording and joint venture from the piano duo of Anke Pan and Yuhao Guo though their paths have crossed since meeting at Pre-College Cologne in 2006. With no concerts and the opportunity to use an exceptional vacant concert hall for their recording, Guo began to compose his Suite for two pianos to sit alongside two of their favourite pieces, the familiar second suite by Rachmaninoff and the less slightly familiar first suite by Rachmaninoff's teacher Anton Arensky. Coincidentally all three suites were written in their respective composer's 27th year.

There are more than a few hints of the Tschaikovsky of Eugene Onegin in the second theme of the Romance that opens the first of Arensky's five Suites for two pianos. The whole movement comprises two themes treated as variations, each being gradually transformed with ever more layers of gossamer decoration. The sense of lyrical melancholy is relieved at the end by a tranquil ending in the major key. It paves the way for the waltz, a deservedly popular piece that has the lilt of a Viennese waltz and echoes of grand evenings in brightly lit ballrooms. The writing is marvellously idiomatic – I can't help swaying to this whenever I hear it and it is a joy to play. Likewise the Polonaise, a cross between the nobility of Chopin and the exuberance of Liszt. There is a more lyrical central section with a theme decorated with more rapid figuration, a real feature of the whole work and the octaves of the coda bring the work to a grand virtuoso conclusion.

Rachmaninoff's second Suite comes from that glorious period that also saw the composition of the second Concerto, the Cello Sonata and the Op 21 songs. Its opening alla marcia is wonderfully managed by Pan and Guo, with a clear palette that allows the chord heavy theme to ring out triumphantly. This clarity also informs the Valse despite the fast tempo the duo adopts; it never sounds rushed though and they judge the tempi of the more lyrical sections beautifully. The central theme of this effervescent waltz was probably my first introduction to Rachmaninoff's 'endless melody' and it still sends a shiver up my spine. There is a similar sense to the romance; its slow unfolding sounds like it could go on for ever and Pan and Guo revel in its rich melody and drama. They also revel in the virtuosity of the final tarantella taking it at a terrific pace, all visceral excitement but with clear ears on the many subtleties in the writing bringing the recital to a terrific close.

Lovers of tonal music need not fear the 2020 composition date of Yuhao Guo's Suite for two pianos; it sits comfortably alongside its companions though the style is very different. The opening Introduction is underpinned by a driving repeated note feature that accompanies a descending harmonic pattern and cinematic first theme. A delicate, nostaligic central section segues into a lilting waltz before the insistent opening reappears. A fragile, sentimental berceuse follows, its theme linked to the Ode to joy from Beethoven's 9th Symphony – a nod to his 250 year's celebrations. The third movement is a waltz that could have come from the pen of a late 19th Century French composer with its genial sway, tripping figuration and brilliant ending. The Toccata brings together the elements of the previous movements in a rhythmic and stylish potpourri that wears its heart on its sleeve – I hope Yuhao Guo will forgive me if I say that I kept hearing Part of my world from The Little Mermaid sneaking out of the texture here and there. For all its traditional elements this is nothing if not contemporary and if an element of film music doesn't deter you then I think this will prove an appealing addition to the two piano repertoire.

This disc is a pleasure; the pianists are first rate with a marvellous blend of passion, sensitivity and communication backed up by oodles of technique. The sound is rich and clear, capturing the two Steinway Ds to perfection and the notes by the pianists themselves are both personal and detailed. A single caveat, and a minor one, is the disc's length; at 56 minutes this potentially could have been a disc of four suites. That aside I enjoyed the recital immensely and I hope to hear more of this young duo – perhaps they might be persuaded to tackle the two piano Suite by Ignaz Friedman that definitely needs a modern recording.

Rob Challinor



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