Thursday, 23 August 2012

Four Hands Piano Recital / Jean-Jacques Balet and Mayumi Kameda / Review

Jean-Jacques Balet and Mayumi Kameda
Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (21 August 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 August 2012 with the title "Great contrasts from piano duo".

Recitals of piano music played by four hands are rare events, and when the repertoire avoids usual suspects and unearths rarely performed works, these become even more treasurable. The Geneva-based piano duo of Jean-Jacques Balet and Mayumi Kameda served up a treat of the familiar and the arcane.

Schumann’s Pictures from the East (Bilder aus dem Osten) is a positive rarity but make very pleasant listening. Although inspired by 11th century Arabic writings from the Maqamat, the six varied impromptus do not contain a shred of Oriental music. What enlivened their appeal was the well-coordinated play of voices from both primo and secondo parts, evenly delineated and clearly articulated throughout.    

This merely served as warm-up for the undoubted masterpiece that is Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor. It is very well known but seldom performed here because its utmost musical demands elude the skilled amateurs for whom it was originally written. The Swiss duo had their hands full, but their whole-hearted performance never stinted on poetry and drama.

The lilting opening over which a melancholic melody floated was beautifully hewn, not too slow nor too impatient such that the march-like second theme came across well contrasted. There was no let-up in the ensuing busy central episode, which was free-flowing and exciting. When the opening theme returned, it made for a welcome déjà vu. Good performances tend to create that feeling, making one forget about the notes.

The second half was devoted to just one work, the Singapore premiere of the original piano version of Stravinsky’s epoch-making ballet The Rite of Spring. Lest one imagined it to be a mere reduction of the fully-scored orchestral work, this is not the case. Every strident chord, every ear-shattering cluster, mounted on irregular and jagged epileptic rhythms, was already conceived on four hands in this score.

Thus the listener does not actually miss the orchestral colours when this leaping skeleton launches into full flight. One instead marvels at the ingenious invention, outrageous audacity, and the sheer frenetic pace at which all the intriguing details falls into place. For this, Balet and Kameda applied themselves with great industry and agility, scarcely missing a note amid the throng.

One also exults at the intricate choreography of twenty fingers on a single cramped keyboard, the expert crossing of hands without getting in each other’s way. The final orgiastic Sacrificial Dance further upped the ante, by which time the kinetic pace and forward momentum almost left the poor page-turner in its wake.

The tumultuous applause was rewarded with two far-quieter encores: Ravel’s gamelan-inspired Empress of the Pagodas and Fauré’s Mi-a-ou  from Dolly Suite. Fascinating contrasts indeed. 

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