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Wednesday, October 21, 2009


“Two Pianists” CD features first-rate duo playing in an interesting programme. (Review by Michael Green)

There is a big repertory of music for two pianists playing at one keyboard or two. It dates back to the days before television and radio, when you had to make your own entertainments instead of pressing a button.

Considering the size and quality of this repertory, I find it surprising that music for piano duo is not performed more often professionally. As a humble amateur pianist with the good fortune to have as a friend a highly skilled professional, Lara Jones (who is now living in Germany), I have explored this field quite extensively, playing Schubert, Bach, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Faure and a host of arrangements, from symphonies to opera.

It is therefore with particular pleasure that I write about an excellent CD made by South African duo pianists Luis Magalhaes and Nina Schumann. They are a husband and wife team and they both teach music at Stellenbosch University. He was born in Portugal, she in South Africa. They met and married ten years ago while they were studying at the University of North Texas in the United States.

With 35 concertos in her repertoire, Nina has given more than 140 concerto performances in South Africa, Europe and the US. Luis has given recital, concerto and chamber music performances in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa.

They gave a duo recital recently in Durban. I could not attend because it clashed with a symphony concert, but I now have their CD called simply Two Pianists. It contains 66 minutes of first-rate duo playing in an interesting programme. The main item is an arrangement for two pianos of the two books of Brahms’s well-known Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35. I had never before heard this version of Brahms’s massive work. The arrangement is by the twentieth century Romanian conductor and composer Constantin Silvestri. It captures all the fiery brilliance of the original, enhanced at times by the extra power generated by two pianos.

In striking contrast is a much more terse set of variations on the same Paganini theme by the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, who died in 1994. This is music in the modern manner, dissonant, strongly rhythmical, wayward and commanding. You won’t doze off listening to this. The theme, from one of Paganini’s caprices for violin, is very famous. It seems to have had an irresistible appeal for composers who wanted to write variations. Apart from the two on this CD, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninov and many others have turned their hands to this chirpy tune.

Two suites by the Russian Anton Arensky (1861-1906) follow on the CD. The waltz of the first suite is well known, and the second set includes a delightfully delicate piece called The Coquette, arched eyebrows in music. Perhaps in a future CD they will include the two other suites by Arensky which contain, inter alia, a wonderful Nocturne and a remarkable piece called La Reve, The Dream.

Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhaes complete their CD with a brilliant arrangement by Leonard Bernstein of Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, giving another opportunity for virtuoso playing by two highly accomplished pianists. The recording includes an extensive programme note that is far better than the brief and inadequate comments that are often provided with CDs. - Michael Green