Duo Enharmonics, the Nicole Chao and Beth Chen piano duo team, have become regular performers at the St Andrew’s lunch time concerts. This year they offered a journey from a graceful Mozart Sonata of 1765 through Rachmaninov’s nostalgic Russian group of six pieces of 1894, to the grand spectacular duo piano arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse of 1920.
The Mozart Sonata in D Major, KV.381 is a very early work, written by Mozart to perform with his sister Nanerl on their tour in London. He was nine years old, and the piece is the earliest known piece for four hands. It was written to display the technical virtuosity of the children, with cascading fast passages. It is not a profound work, but it has its charm. Chao and Chen tackled it with great energy and brilliance, probably exactly what is required. They didn’t try to make the work sound deeper than it is. This is a charming, youthful composition, showy and easy on the ear.
Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux Op 11 is also a youthful work. It is a collection of six pieces in different genre. The opening, Barcarolle is dark and mysterious with a dazzling climax and powerful chords. The Scherzo that follows is sprightly and brilliant with a relentless rhythmic drive. The Russian theme is a set of variations on a folk-song like theme, beautiful and haunting. The Waltz is very much in the Rachmaninov idiom, a waltz indeed, but very different from those of Chopin and the fashionable Viennese waltzes. The fifth piece, Romance, is a passionate work with a poignant principal theme. The final piece, Slava (Glory), is a dramatic set of variations on a Russian chant that Moussorgsky also used in Boris Godunov and in the Pictures at an Exhibition. We are here on true Russian soil. These were played with charm, sensitivity, and depth.
Ravel’s La Valse was originally conceived as a ballet, but it is better known as an orchestral concert work, which was transcribed for a piano duet and later for four hands. It is a powerful work. Capturing the rich sound of a symphony orchestra puts great demands on the pianists. Ravel wrote this music in the wake of the First World War. Although he denied that there was any deeper meaning in the work then what the music itself revealed, it is tempting to hear in the deconstructed waltz theme, in the occasional harsh chords, a tragic allusion to the destruction of the Second Empire, or the gemütlich charming era of pre-war Vienna, or indeed, of the lost pre-war world. There are also riotous cynical passages. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen played with great energy and force, without losing sight of the coherence of the work.
This was a long journey from the seemingly orderly world of the young Mozart that the concert started with to the ruins of a whole epoch at the end of the Great War. Not only was the concert thoroughly enjoyable, it was also a musical tour of the musical world of a century and a half. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen piano proved to be an outstanding team coping very ably with the difficult medium of four hands on one keyboard. They played with unanimity as well as virtuosity.
Some years ago both Nicole Chao and Beth Chen studied with Thomas Hecht at the New Zealand School of Music. They formed a piano duo partnership and have been close friends ever since. They went overseas, studied further, came back, and carried on playing together.
Four hands playing on one keyboard is a very difficult form of chamber music. There is no contrast, no different tone colour or timbre to separate or contrast the voices. The two pianists have to think and play like one. Such unanimity was evident in this concert. It started with Debussy’s charming, well known Petite Suite, though better known in its orchestral version. It is a playful piece and was played with lovely sonority and clear phrasing.
Then came the huge, taxing, four-hand version of the first movement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I imagined the two friends, very accomplished pianists, getting together and saying ‘Let’s have some fun’. ‘What can we play to test the limits of the piano?’ and they opted for The Rite of Spring. The one piano, four hands, has to capture the vast kaleidoscopic range of a large orchestra, with its full tonal and colour range. The music moves from powerful, loud, fast passages to contrasting gentle, lyric melodies. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen played with forceful energy, and captured the magic of the ballet.
This challenging work left the audience with a sense of exhilaration. But that was not all. The concert was capped with Greg Anderson’s arrangement of the Blue Danube Waltz. Forget a gentle cruise down the Danube, or twirling to the tune of a gentle waltz in some crystal illuminated ballroom. Greg Anderson completely deconstructed the well known work of Johann Strauss. He embraced Heavy Metal, popular American music, and a whole range of contemporary sounds with rhythmic echos of old Vienna.
It was great fun. Let’s have more of this, let’s hear this talented pair again.
These two pianists, born in Taiwan, gained their master’s degrees at Victoria University, and have studied elsewhere. They have returned to Wellington with a host of awards and prizes in their brief-cases. They have both become highly polished players who have recently joined forces to play piano duets, and duos, no doubt, which they do with a unanimity of feeling and technical mastery that is not usually acquired in so short a time.
Their programme combined a couple of satirical duets with solo pieces from the normal, yet highly demanding, repertoire.
Messager and Fauré put together as set of five pieces drawn from Wagner: ‘Fantasy in the form of a quadrille on themes from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen’. Unlike certain French (and other) composers, the two friends – teacher and pupil – were enraptured by Wagner’s operas and had seen them in Munich, Cologne, Bayreuth and London. We were offered no hint as to the respective contributions by the two composers (Messager wrote many operas and operettas, the still popular ballet Les deux pigeons, and conducted the first performance of Pelléas et Mélisande). The first piece opened with loud chords and continued its brief course in dramatic fashion. The character of the quadrille varied from piece to piece, all danceable no doubt, but more likely to raise smiles; but more likely to raise smiles for the intention was to send up a few of the Leitmotive in a genial, light-hearted way.
Beth Chen played three of the preludes from Rachmaninov’s Op 23 set; hints of sentimentality were to be heard in No 4, but what kept the piece alive especially was the way the sounds produced by the two hands were kept so distinct in their colour and mood, yet created such a perfect vocal blend. No 5, in G minor, is the second best-known of the preludes; she played its slightly non-bellicose march carefully, which lent a greater force to the climactic phases. No 6 is rhapsodic in character and Chen gave it a relaxed though scrupulous performance, with sensitively placed rubato; again the two hands took up sharply contrasting roles – bright chords in the right hard, the left playing legato arpeggios. These were highly accomplished and authoritative performances.
Then it was Nicole Chao’s turn, with the first Mephisto Waltz, and it was brilliant: the sinister excitement of the first heavy chords, the dangerous, galloping rhythms; the scarlet and black colours of a medieval Satan in the hair-raising rushes of chromatic scales, and then the sudden beguiling calm. Her playing was a dazzling display of speed, agility and clarity, getting to the heart of Liszt.
The pair returned then to offer another facet of late 19th century French wit, whose musical model was Satie. La belle excentrique [oui, il s’écrite comme ça] describes four characteristics or behaviours of a type of woman only to be found among the French. The Moon March, for example, suggested someone coping with the low gravity that exists on the moon or possibly with three too many drinks. The High Society Cancan with its scraps of tunes that interrupt each other, toy playfully with the spirit of Offenbach. The performances were a splendid substitute for a liquid lunch.
These two pianists await, though I doubt whether they do consciously, an invitation to join Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationwide concert series or even as duet or duo pianists, in the tradition of the Labèque sisters, in Bach, Mozart, Dussek or Poulenc, with the Wellington Orchestra or the NZSO.