An outstanding and unusual recording, marking the ECM New Series débuts of two very exceptional musicians.
András Schiff and Peter Serkin, friends for many years, have not often been duo partners, although they have made music together in other contexts (recent instances including performances of Bach's Double and Triple Concertos for Keyboard with the Camerata Bern.) In 1997, however, they undertook a brief North American tour together, preparing the material that they would record at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York of November of that year. A concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art brought forth a review from Bernard Holland in the New York Times, sub-headed "Proof that piano duos can be saved from marginality", suggesting it is precisely the strongly contrasting styles of these players - "poetic" is an adjective most often applied to Schiff's touch, while Serkin is frequently described as "austere" - that elevates their interpretations far above the congruent congeniality we associate with "the piano duo" as a fixed entity.
"[Where such] attractive musical couples entertain us, sometimes with clattering good cheer, almost always with a ghostly talent for togetherness, Mr Schiff and Mr Serkin, who are occasional partners at best, pointed out a number of things that their colleagues seem to lack, one being the subtlety and precision of true virtuosity, another being the sophisticated devotion to making heard what is naturally difficult to hear....Mr Serkin's rigorous asceticism in which clarity of sound takes precedence over beauty, is quite a distance from Mr Schiff's ever-thoughtful elegance." It can however be said that both players dispense entirely with the mannered gesture; from their differing standpoints they investigate the essential qualities of the music: "Shared was a single, consuming inquiry into how these pieces were made and what they say. Shared, too, the kind of enlightened caring that allowed separate contrapuntal strands within convoluted texture to have their own place and meaning...Mozart's D major sonata conveys a maximum of charm, the Reger and Busoni pieces are grand dramatic structures, the first with its Romantic tone and slippery harmonies, the second with a stony and impressive amalgam of Baroque and 20th-century rigour. Mr Schiff and Mr Serkin were as powerful in these two pieces as they were delightful in the sonata."
In his liner notes for "Music for Two Pianos", Klaus Schweizer looks at inter-relationships between the pieces, viewing Schiff and Serkin's concise programme of music by Mozart, Reger and Busoni as "a kind of Kunst der Fuge" in itself, "a three-fold attempt to direct the gaze, from changing points of view, at Bach, arguably the most inventive 'fugue maker' of all times. .. And the Mozart sonata, following the three fugue works, offers a new hearing experience...it radiates an overwhelming lightness and grace, temperament and esprit."
Ferruccio Busoni, who published a collection of aphorisms celebrating Mozart in 1906 - "He is the perfect and rounded figure, the sum total, an end not a beginning" - was also an ardent Bachian. His "Fantasia contappuntistica" was begun by the German-Italian composer in 1910 on a transatlantic liner, as its composer embarked on a US tour, was completed in its first draft in New Orleans and went through several versions for solo piano until revised for two pianists in the final, 1921 version. The "fantasy" involved is the imaginative "architectural" reconstruction, from fragments, of the final movement of the "Kunst der Fuge". A previous recording of the Fantasia by Serkin, with Richard Goode, was issued by CBS Masterworks.
Busoni and the Bavarian Max Reger were friends and correspondents, perhaps united in their musical open-mindedness, disdain for the polemic of the critics, and distance from trends of the day. Busoni found no contradictions inherent in expressing a love for both Mozart and Liszt, for instance, while Reger refused to align himself with warring camps in the Brahms versus Wagner debates of the late 19th century. Reger and Busoni - both of whom were also highly gifted pianists - agreed of course on Bach; indeed, Reger's predilection for counterpoint and Renaissance polyphony, and his mastery of techniques of variation and fugue, at one point earned him the nickname of "the second Bach".
The lengthy variations of Reger's op. 86, on a theme of Beethoven's, offer, as Klaus Schweizer notes, "considerable leeway - from a gradual transformation of thematic character to radical estrangement. Reger intentionally juxtaposes still audible figurative changes with extremely free passages, which pursue spin-offs of single motifs and acquire the independence of self-contained piano pieces. As always, the piano style seeks to achieve orchestral fullness and expansive gestural expression."
Mozart wrote only one sonata for two pianos, the Sonata in D Major K. 448/375a, of which Alfred Einstein was to write that "not a single shadow darkens its cheerful character. The artistry of balance and dialogue between the two pianos, the delicacy of the figuration, the sense of texture in blending and exploiting the registers of the instrument are all of such supreme mastery that the seemingly 'superficial' and enthralling composition becomes one of the most profound and mature Mozart ever wrote."
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András Schiff, "a unique poetic voice among pianists" (Gramophone), was born in Budapest in 1953, and studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy with Pál Kadsosa. He has declared himself indebted to composer and professor of chamber music György Kurtág and to London pianist George Malcolm's expertise on a variety of keyboard instruments as well as his profound knowledge of historical performance. Schiff also avows his indebtedness to old recordings of pianist Edwin Fischer and master cellist Pablo Casals. In his recitals, he has often concentrated on cycles of keyboard works by Bach, Bartók, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert, but his repertoire extends from English virginal music through to Heinz Holliger via Scarlatti, Dvorak and much more. Schiff is founder of the "Musiktage Mondsee", organised annually near Salzburg. Amongst his many awards, Schiff has received the Bartók Award (1991), the Kossuth Prize (the highest Hungarian state award, 1996), and the Léonie Sonnings Music Prize. Further New Series recordings with András Schiff are in preparation.
Born in New York in 1947, Peter Serkin - like András Schiff - has always been fascinated by the pianistic challenge of Bach's "Goldberg Variations", but he too declines to be categorized as a specialist. He has devoted himself with great earnestness to the music of the 20th century, and has commissioned pieces from many contemporary composers, seven from Toru Takemitsu alone. The grandson of Adolf Busch and the son of pianist Rudolf Serkin, Peter Serkin studied at the Cornish Institute in Philadelphia with Lee Luvisi, Mieczsyslaw Horszowski and his father. He is a founder member of Tashi, patterned after Messiaen's chamber music ensemble "Quatuor pour la fin du temps", Messiaen's music also providing the context for an early, and most impressive, two piano performance, the "Visions de l'Amen" with Yuji Takahashi.
2-CD set includes 28-page three-language booklet, with liner notes by Klaus Schweizer