Written by Conor Coady
The fact that nobody has made a fortune organizing an all-piano orchestra reflects a bitter musical reality: without contrasts in the kind of sound they’re being fed, our ears aren’t able to focus and enjoy the tastiest sonic morsels. Too much of a single, good-sounding thing transforms pleasure into an aural overdose.
Wednesday night at Jeunesses Musicales’ Salle Joseph-Rouleau, there were plenty of good-sounding, richly contrasted things on display, brought into being by the Amièle-Larivière Piano Duo in their concert of all-Russian music from the late 19th and early 20th century. This wasn’t an orchestra of pianos, but everything they performed was at some point a piece written for full orchestra, later transcribed for two people playing a single instrument. It’s easy to forget that before recordings were a thing, people actually had to play it to hear it.
To be satisfied, connoisseurs of this type of repertoire need performers to create a pianistic landscape that sounds “orchestral”. In practice, this means deploying a wide range of sound-production techniques (altering the speed and the weight with which you attack the keys) to create subtle differences in sound. How can a piano sound (kind of) like a french horn? It can be done, but it’s not easy.
The concert opened with selections from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in an arrangement the duo came up with themselves. There was a surprising moment at the end of the Old Castle section: it usually concludes with a sudden, loud minor chord after a long, quiet and hypnotic few minutes, but Amièle-Larivière’s version inserted a slowly building tremolo (literally a rumbling in the deep) leading up to the final chord. Purists might have cried blasphemy, complaining that their tremolo ruined the punch, but I enjoyed their risky rendition and the way it created a foreshadowing effect, preparing the ground for the epic tremolo that wraps up Pictures.
Pictures is usually performed by a single pianist so you might think that splitting the work down the middle would make things easier. Alas: many hands definitely do not make light work when there are 20 precisely firing fingers and their connected extremities across a single 88-key grand piano. It’s one thing to learn a tough passage on your own, but it’s a difficulty from a different dimension to learn the passage well enough to be able to pass the baton to a partner halfway through, who can pick up seamlessly where you left off. Amièle-Larivière did this beautifully throughout the concert, which presented a surprising amount of entertaining physical choreography (the piano wasn’t invented and developed with four elbows in mind).
The substitute orchestra at Amièle and Larivière’s disposal was the hall’s tinny sounding Bosendorfer that unfortunately wasn’t up to the task of helping the duo’s subtly-coloured sonic vision shine. But as golfer Sam Snead said, you gotta dance with who you brung. As the concert progressed, the duo became more comfortable with the instrument and by the time the program had ended, the gauging of four hands with independent sound levels on a single instrument was exquisite.
The synchronization could have been better during Pictures and also parts of the second piece, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, arranged for four hands by 20th century pianistic end-boss Sergei Rachmaninov. But like their control of the weak instrument at their disposal, the duo’s ability to play as one steadily improved throughout the concert.
This concert was the duo’s first in a tour of Eastern Canada under the auspices of Jeunesses Musicales. The final piece performed, Igor Stravinsky’s legendary ballet The Rite of Spring, shocked Parisian audiences so deeply at the premiere over a hundred years ago that many of them stood up and left midway through. Judging by this Montreal performance of The Rite of Spring, the prospects for the tour are excellent; when every audience member at Wednesday’s concert stood up because of Stravinsky’s music, it wasn’t to take part in a Parisian musical protest. It was to join in the ovation for a single instrument working as an orchestre à deux.
“Piano rouge” took place March 21st, Salle Joseph-Rouleau, Jeunesses Musicales Canada, 305 Mont-Royal Ave. For future Jeunesses Musicales, see HERE.