Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo, brought a striking programme of works for two pianos to St John’s Smith Square for the Sunday afternoon concert, 19 February 2017. They opened with Hubert Parry’s rarely performed Grosses Duo in E minor, following it with Leonard Bernstein’s two-piano arrangement of Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico. The programme was completed with the premiere of the duo’s own two-piano arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s mammoth Symphony No. 2.
Written in the mid-1870s when the composer was still in his 20s and had not yet full developed his recognised style, Parry’s Grosses Duo is a large-scale and eminently serious work. Each of the three movements makes a rather Brahmsian exploration of Baroque counterpoint, but shot through with the sort of bravura which makes the whole invigorating listening. This was Bach’s counterpoint viewed through a 19th century lens, and from the opening notes of the Allegro energico first movement we could appreciate the rich textures which Parry created with just four hands at two pianos. Of course it helped that we were listening to a well matched pair of huge Steinways played by such a long-established piano duo. The second movement was a gentle Siciliano which, for all the movement’s gentle lilt, included some remarkably elaborate figuration and rich textures. The final movement started with a very impressive long crescendo which led to the concluding fugue, based on a very strikingly angular fugue subject. The sheer business of the fugue subject kept the movement bubbling along to a terrific climax.
This seems to have been something of a weekend for rare English piano duo works, having heard RVW’s Introduction and Fugue on Friday and I did wonder whether RVW knew the Parry work (RVW studied with Parry in the 1890s).
This was followed by Bernstein’s bravura arrangement of Copland’s El Salon Mexico. Callaghan and Takenouchi played with vivid energy and clear enthusiasm, bringing out the work’s infectious rhythms and not neglecting the more lyrical moments. An exciting performance, notable for the range of colour which the two brought to the piece.
Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 is a huge work and until relatively recently was routinely cut; the work was premiered in 1908. Rachmaninov was a notable pianist and he wrote a two piano arrangement of his Symphonic Dances which he and Vladimir Horowitz premiered, so a two piano arrangement of the symphony is very apt.
This was the premiere of the duo’s own arrangement, and it was striking how successfully they had re-invented Rachmaninov’s symphonic textures onto the piano, creating some very Rachmaninov-like moments, with the two pianos creating a remarkable combination of clarity and richness of textures.
The first movement’s large-scale structure was well controlled by the performers, with the concluding sections generating a real sense of excitement. The second movement combined the vividness of the opening ostinato with a beautifully lyrical account of the symphony’s motto theme, and some very inventive piano textures.For the third movement, the main theme emerged out of some very magical piano writing, with beautifully sympathetic and balanced phrasing from the pianists. Throughout the concert it was notable how well balanced and matched their two performances were. The piano re-invention of this movement made its romanticism seem less sugar-coated, and all the more moving. The finale started with an outburst of infectious energy which bubbled along despite some more complex moments when Rachmaninov relaxes the tension, all leading to a terrific ending.
“…fine performances of often elusive music… Callaghan and Takenouchi really do give an utterly convincing account… a magnificent recital”
I gave a warm welcome to Volume 1 of this survey by these same artists. I’m pleased to say that, if anything Volume 2 is better still. Given that it follows the same format with the same artists in the same venue with the same technical team it should be the equal at least of the earlier disc. The fact that I consider it better is simply down to the repertoire recorded which includes two of Delius’s most important and characteristic scores: Paris and Song of the High Hills. Volume 2 – which runs less than thirty seconds shy of eighty minutes – was recorded just five months after Volume 1. Clearly pianists Callaghan and Takenouchi were immersing themselves in the Delian idiom at this time. This would seem to be one of the main reasons both discs ‘work’. Regardless of the medium – and let’s be honest Delius does not work at its absolute best stripped of its orchestral garb and varied tonal palette – these are fine performances of often elusive music.
Valuable too to pay homage to the dedicated transcribers, three of whom at least were vital in establishing Delius as a major international composer. None more so than Julius Buths who arranged the first work here: Paris – the Song of a Great City. Buths is probably best known for his championing of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – rescuing it from the car-crash of Richter’s Birmingham premiere. He had enough belief in the composer to midwife the work giving it its German and European premiere on 19 December 1901 in Düsseldorf. At the second performance in 1902 such was the applause that Elgar was called to the stage twenty times. This was the performance that elicited Richard Strauss’s famous quote “I drink to the success and welfare of the first English progressive musician, Meister Elgar”.Delius was Buths’ other great British composer passion – he was the soloist in the first performance of the Piano Concerto in 1904 and conducted just the second performance of Appalachia in 1905. Paris is one of Delius’ first major scores – he was in his late thirties by the time it was written but what strikes one is the muscular confidence of the writing. For sure the influence of Strauss is at its least digested but as a picture of a great city at night it remains both compelling and effective. There is a certain episodic nature to it work but Callaghan and Takenouchi are very good indeed at keeping the large – sometimes sprawling – structure together. I particularly like the murky opening, a kind of musical mist on the Seine from which the city emerges.
As I mentioned in my earlier review, the arranger’s dilemma here is quite how to transcribe these very detailed and complex works. To include “everything” takes it out of the realm of playability for most of the (then) target public but to make it simply pianistic is to risk losing the essence of Delius. To me this can be expressed as a sense of fluidity and flow within a strongly defined structure. Too often Delius can be allowed to wallow in its own narcissistic beauty – to its major detriment. Buths includes as much as possible but the players here overcome those technical hurdles with ease. The second piece Eventyr,feels like a smaller work even though it runs to a substantial eighteen minutes. Its arranger Benjamin Dale was a virtuoso composer for the keyboard so it should not come as any surprise what an accomplished transcription he made. The ‘novelty’ in this work is the “wild shout” of “Hei” which the orchestral score directs as being made by “20 men’s voices (invisible)” – it’s one of those effects which seems like a good idea but ends up as a faintly embarrassed “gentleman’s excuse me” so its absence in the transcription is not sorely felt. It does however bring it home just how demanding it is to take Delius from the orchestral score. This work abounds in extremes of dynamic and tempo (the shout is marked ffff) so again praise is due to arranger and performers for so successfully bridging the gap between the genres.
Interesting to note that the third work is a transcription by two working pianists. It is the only score I do not have to hand in the original orchestral version. It sounds like duettists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson had chosen to make this transcription more of an overtly pianistic display than the other arrangers here. Not that that is a bad thing for it sounds lovely. However, there is a striking sense that more of the textures are filled with pianistic filigree than true Delian weave. Together with the languidly beautiful Summer Night on the River arranged by Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock these two relative miniatures provide a beautiful respite before the final assault on the Grainger-arranged Song of the High Hills.
Increasingly this seems to me to be one of Delius’ greatest and most significant works. It embodies so much of his essence both musically and spiritually. At just a few seconds shy of thirty minutes of continuous music it is his largest single span of orchestral music. Grainger’s achievement is to make the transcription as convincing as he does and again it is served superbly here. Callaghan and Takenouchi really do give an utterly convincing account. Even so, such is the work’s scale, aspiration and conception that anything less than the full orchestral presentation must be doomed to – an albeit glorious – failure. If one were trying to persuade someone of Delius’s greatness and chose this score as an exemplar the simple fact is you would never turn to this transcription before the original.
Therein lies the ‘problem’ for this disc, much as it did for volume 1. By definition this is a specialist CD. For that reason we must be extremely grateful to the performers and to Somm for the time and effort lavished on it. As before, I find Martin Lee-Browne’s notes verging on the pointless with little consistency in the manner in which the information he does give is presented. The interest in this disc for 99% of those collecting it will be the two piano format. Telling us little or nothing about the arrangers or discussing the manner [and success] of their transcriptions is an opportunity missed. When Lee-Browne writes apropos the final work “In my view, the moment about a third of the way through, when the chorus enters unaccompanied and ppp is one of the most magical in all music” it seems rather perverse given that we are given a version with no chorus. All this does is highlight what is lacking not what has been achieved.
Somm’s regular production team have produced a very good sound-picture. I like the way the two pianos sit clearly differentiated in the stereo spread. This allows you to hear how skilfully the arrangers have divided the musical spoils – it really does differ from arranger to arranger. Again, as with volume 1 I did wonder if the Steinway Model ‘D’ pianos as recorded in this acoustic didn’t just harden fractionally at the most powerful climaxes. For some reason I have it in my mind’s ear that a mellower piano tone might be even more appropriate. There is just one little performing quirk; the players occasionally choose to spread unison chords in a way that prevents total unanimity of attack. It happens often enough to clearly be a performing choice rather than an ensemble slip. Given the choice I would have preferred something with absolutely precise articulation but that is a tiny caveat for an excellent disc.
This is a magnificent recital of works that still struggle to be recognised as the masterpieces I believe them to be.
International Record Review, Mark Tanner
I had the pleasure of reviewing the first instalment of Simon Callaghan’s and Hiroaki Takenouchi’s Delius transcriptions for two pianos in June 2012 and commented upon a ‘sparkling and sincere treatment’ of ‘La Calinda’ (from Koanga, arranged by Joan Trimble) . The disc really captured the colours and timbres of Delius’s multifaceted style, so it was with great anticipation that I peeled off the cellophane from Volume 2.
As with the first disc, the recording was made in 2011 in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, and as before, was impressed by the quality of the sound captured by Somm.
Callaghan and Takenouchi are a very well marshalled duo, coupling dexterity and enthusiasm with a natural sense of ease and a perceptive response to the music. Though two pianos can, in the right hands, tease out an enormous spectrum of effects with which to fulfil orchestrally conceived music, there are a great many hazards and complexities to overcome first, such as matching tonal and dynamic shades alongside pedal effects, not to mention the nitty-gritty business of gauging shifts in tempo and marrying up the attack so that the texture remains transparent. All of this is very well handled by these players, so that the music is permitted to spring forward in a lively, engaging manner. I particularly enjoyed their account of the somewhat louche Paris: A Nocturne (arranged by Julius Bluths), which took as its inspiration Delius’s first encounter with the French capital in 1888, a time when the air must have been thick with riotous hedonism and intellectual inspiration. This sprawling work, a kind of bizarre tone poem, emerges over some 22 minutes from an enigmatic – scary even – subterranean preamble into more emphatic, evocative and perfumed territory. The shadowy avenues eventually, or at least temporarily, lead into lighter, ebullient areas of music; in truth one never quite knows what is coming next. The performance is well coordinated and evolves into something really rather exciting in the middle.
Summer Night on the River is the sequel to On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, which was also dedicated to Balfour Gardiner. Arranged by Philip Heseltine (a.k.a. Peter Warlock), it achieves a beautifully lilting atmosphere in this performance.
Debussyan sonorities are somewhere in the mix and, although there is an elusive melody to clutch onto from time to time, one finds oneself floating along in the moment, pleasantly unsure of what one is experiencing.
In his nicely concise notes, Martin Lee-Browne explains that Delius was a lifelong admirer of Norway, and in this marvellously spacious, panoramic work, Eventyr, arranged by Benjamin Dale, the music’s storytelling dimension comes across very enjoyably. For me, this piece shines out as the most consistently enticing work on the disc, with sinister undertones and rugged scenes colliding with less impetuous moments and oddly pleasing brighter splashes of colour. Delius seems to have had people queuing up to create arrangements of his orchestral pieces, and Percy Grainger was also responsible for A Dance Rhapsody No. 1, which the duo ably captured in Volume I. Song of the High Hills is another Norway-motivated work of considerable length and diversity. The mountainous terrain is verv well evoked in the writing, and the shimmering detail is superbly drawn out in this performance. The rhythmically stirring Fantastic Dance, written in 1931 , arranged by Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, is by comparison a somewhat brief, quirky work, though nonetheless vivid and always interesting.
Though narrowly missing the boat for the 150th anniversary of Delius’s birth (Volume I was timed to perfection), this recording chalks up another highly successful and rewarding endeavour for Callaghan and Takenouchi. Delius fans will have something to talk about.
The skill of these arrangements varies. Most utilitarian is Rudolf Schmidt-Wunstorf’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring which gives us the visible bones but no flesh, no spirit. Delius’s own contemporaries buckle to the task with greater understanding. Percy Grainger’s own piano panache enlivens his treatment of the Dance Rhapsody; Philip Heseltine’s Brigg Fair shimmers with magic at the start; and if the rarely encountered Poem of Life and Love stays structurally indigestible Balfour Gardiner and Eric Fenby’s distillation still reveals many riches.
Roll on volume two!
International Record Review, Mark Tanner
Frederick Delius’s orchestral music abounds in colour and vividness of effect. During 2012 there will doubtless be numerous commemorative ventures marking the 150 years since the composer’s birth, but Delius’s music all too easily slips through the net. It permeates the senses in ways not quite emulated by his British contemporaries, although needless to say there are common threads and priorities to notice; the fact that Delius spent well over half of his life in France means that he picked up an enormous wealth of influences along the way. All the more so given that, at the age of 22, he moved to Florida to cultivate oranges before moving to Virginia, where he found his feet as a music teacher.
He then moved on to Leipzig and Paris, at which point, finally, he could feel safely distanced from any prospect of continuing along the same path as his naturalized German father, Julius, a wool industrialist who had settled with his wife in Bradford. Grez-sur-Loing, a beautiful town noted for its especial allure for artists and musicians, situated about an hour’s drive south of Paris, would become Delius’s home, and from here he would create a significant body of works, many of them orchestral.
It is surely more than a small mark of respect that five of Delius’s closest allies between them transcribed nine of the 33 orchestral pieces, and all of these appear on two discs for the first time from Somm. Martin Lee-Browne, Chairman of the Delius Society and author of the pithy but attractively put together booklet notes with this recording by Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, reminds us that music for two pianos became an especially important genre during the second half of the nineteenth century, following on logically from the duets of Mozart and Schubert. The enormous possibilities for assigning melodies to a rich texture spread between two players, each with full control over pedalling, dynamics and tonal inflections, opened up a near limitless range of opportunities for reimagining orchestral sounds. Indeed, transcriptions of operas, along with a good deal of other music besides, would become an invaluable method of bringing such music to a wider audience than could ever otherwise have been the case prior to the age of recordings.
Recorded at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire in 2011, the sound is captured very colourfully indeed, and the immediacy of the ever-altering timbres is very encouraging from the first track on the disc, A Dance Rhapsody No. 1, arranged by Grainger, which soon springs to life with variants on a rather zesty, impish little melody. Brigg Fair also owes something to Grainger, who passed on the melody to Delius in 1907, having heard it while visiting Brigg a couple of years earlier. There are some lovely nuances to savour in this Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) arrangement, which embraces many intricate contrasts from within the evolving folk melody’s variations.
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring takes its cue from Grieg, who greatly admired Delius and who had previously made use of the same Norwegian folk tune from which Delius’s most popular piece would be crafted. Among the difficulties facing piano duos with such repertoire are the many cross-rhythms that Delius saw fit to include, which of course serves to amplify the textural dimension wonderfully in his orchestral writing but adds to the complexity of knitting it all together when played on two pianos. I have, on the whole, been very impressed with the sensitive way the two performers unite on this disc, and their collective spirit for addressing the knotty musical priorities.
Poem of Life and Love, arranged by Balfour Gardiner, is a delightful piece, gauged by Callaghan and Takenouchi with just the right balance. Without the aid of Eric Fenby, Delius’s young amanuensis, A Song of Summer would surely never have come to fruition, and Fenby’s own arrangement of the music for two pianos ranks as among the most moving and engaging music here, thoughtfully set down by Callaghan and Takenouchi. ‘La Calinda’, a personal favourite in its orchestral version (Florida Suite, composed in 1886-87), gets a sparkling and sincere treatment using Joan Trimble’s excellent arrangement – I’d have opened the disc with this track, actually, rather than placing it last, if only because it captures so readily the vision of a young Delius, shooting from the hip, an instinctive musician who despised musical snobbery and was simply interested in how music washes over us in a meaningful way.