Cozying Up to the Piano
by Elizabeth and Joe Kahn
Duke University June 8: Before the advent of the phonograph and the radio, four-hand piano music was the primary means by which music lovers intensified and expanded their familiarity with classical music. Publishers cranked out transcriptions of orchestral works and even operas. Such transcriptions, as well as original music for piano four hands, were features of both social entertainment and also an excellent courtship activity. Couples could get away with considerable hanky-panky in the middle octaves – especially if hand crossing were involved – right under the noses of their families or chaperones. In a program of both original piano four-hands music and transcriptions, pianists David Heid and Deborah Hollis demonstrated how it's done.
The program began with a transcription, "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," from Handel's oratorio Solomon. It was a good illustration of one of the distinctions between two- and four-hand writing: with a full one-person power to handle the lower end of the keyboard, a lightweight piece can become ponderous indeed. Beethoven symphonies, however, would suffer less from such conversion.
Heid and Hollis followed the Handel with the Sonata in D major, K.381 by Mozart, who composed several sonatas for piano four-hands. Heid, in oral program notes, suggested that Mozart may have written these pieces for performance with his sister Nannerl while the child prodigies were being dragged all over Europe by their stage-door father. But the Sonata's high Köchel number places its composition in 1772 when Mozart was 18 and at loggerheads with his dad. Heid also suggested that it may have served as a teaching tool. If indeed that is the case, piano teachers have been following Mozart's example for over 200 years and probably elicited a bit of nostalgia among former piano students in the audience. The duo did about as well as is possible with second rank Mozart.
There was no intermission in this relatively short program, but the last three pieces were definitely more successful that the first two. The centerpiece and highlight of the evening was Schubert's seldom performed Allegro (titled "Lebensstürme " by Anton Diabelli), D.947. Written just months before his death, it is certainly the offspring of tumultuous times in the composer's life. It is a wonderful piece during which both performers and listeners embark on a wild ride on two intensely emotional themes through a labyrinth of quirky modulations. In Heid's and Hollis's hands, the storm was a pretty much unrelenting forte to fortissimo in a piece where it's difficult to find a convenient place to soften the dynamics, even in the less dense second theme.
There are a few works that began as pieces for piano four hands that
are now familiar primarily in their transformations for orchestra or
chamber ensemble. These include Dvorák's two sets of Slavonic
Dances and Debussy's Petite Suite. Heid and Hollis performed the Debussy
with considerable delicacy. They concluded the program with the pièce
de résistance of four-hand virtuosity, Francis Poulenc's Sonata
for Piano Four Hands. It's a good thing this work was composed in the
twentieth century, for it would have caused considerable consternation
in any serious-minded chaperone. The Sonata requires the players to
be, frankly, all over each other – and each others' keyboard
space from the opening crashing chord, in which Hollis's left hand
crosses Heid's right. The final movement is a caricature of the five
finger exercise, ultimately leading to some confusion as to whose fingers