The piano duo is not a frequently concertized genre. I’m guessing the logistics of getting two good pianos on stage are largely to blame for this. However, as Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss duly demonstrated, it’s an unjustly neglected genre. They played at Jordan Hall this past Sunday afternoon, February 7, as part of the Celebrity Series.
On stage, they made for a study in contrasts. Goode is the elder eminence, short and stout with a monkish haircut. He makes small, refined movements. His bows are polite. At the piano, his thick lips pucker out to the music. He seems to be half singing, half conversing with the material. Biss cuts a crisp figure, long and angular. His eyes have focus, as does his near buzzcut. He’ll use his body for dramatic effect, singing with his torso and exploding when big chords hit.
Their program brought together music of thoroughly canonized composers, but with enough thoughtful connections between the pieces that it hardly felt rote. They opened with a piece for single piano, four hands: Schubert’s Allegro (D. 947). Diabelli also gave it the title “Lebensstürme” (“storms of life”), a quality that is certainly suggested by the music. Swirling textures spread apart and regroup around a central theme. The playing had an elasticity to match, but they used a dry, clear sound that sometimes seemed at odds with the music.
Schumann wrote a series of six Studies in a Canon Form for pedal piano (op. 56); a pedal piano has pedals for playing notes, like an organ. Debussy arranged these for four-hand piano (played here on two pianos). The music is disciplined as well as gorgeous; history tends to focus on Schumann-the-Romantic, but there was also Schumann-the-Nerd. The phrasing of both pianists was sublime: supplely subdivided beats that made the clockwork sing.
Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, from his op. 130 string quartet, was arranged by the composer for piano four hands. Goode and Biss spread it across two pianos. The music can more than amply fill the extra space. Here, it is the music itself that is a vision of the Sublime. Unsurpassed craft yields unsurpassed emotional violence. The music’s contrapuntal and rhythmic complexities were tackled with clarity, never complaint, by the musicians.
Agon was Stravinsky’s last ballet. The piano duo arrangement was created for rehearsal purposes. The single timbre highlighted the Webern influence, while squashing the inventive (even by Stravinsky’s standards) orchestration of the original. The orchestration, unfortunately, also provides much of the music’s variety and momentum. The performance didn’t get the mechanical obeisance that Stravinsky’s rhythms are predicated on.
The program closed with En blanc et noir, a piano duo piece from the end of Debussy’s life. Its three movements come off as concise rather than short. Each is a masterpiece of texture. Other than that, it’s the kind of music that would suffer from description. The piece was a fitting close, as it seemed the best suited to the pianists’ strengths. They brought to it the clarity, restraint, and sensuality that Debussy’s music thrives on.