András Schiff/Peter Serkin: Music for Two Pianos (ECM New Series 1676/77)



András Schiff
Peter Serkin
Music for Two Pianos

András Schiff piano
Peter Serkin piano
Recorded November 1997 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Tom Lazarus
Produced by Philip Traugott, Peter Serkin, and Manfred Eicher

In his liner notes, Klaus Schweizer describes a unique meeting of minds when pianists András Schiff and Peter Serkin appeared on stage together for a November 1997 concert held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rather than join forces, these two “protagonists” rubbed those forces together to see what kind of electricity could be produced, so that “the audience had the pleasure of enjoying a contest of temperaments…and may have come away with the impression that such ‘contrapuntal’ music-making can be more stimulating than the harmony of two kindred souls.” The spontaneity of said performance and all its glorious vices have made their way into this subsequent studio recording, for which we are treated to the same sounds that graced the eyes and ears of all who were there for this rare event. As Schweizer so keenly sees it, this is a program of fugal magnificence, each work drawing from Bach’s highest art its own vivid line of continuity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791):
Fugue in C Minor for Two Pianos, K. 426
Mozart’s fugue may be without commission or context, but we can safely assume it was more than an honorary exercise. As its grinding voices quickly resolve themselves into harmonious contrapuntal weaves, we feel a transformation in every resolution. Through a delightful, if slightly cloudy, game of trills and trade-offs, the musicians pull off a garden-fresh take on this engaging opener.

Max Reger (1873-1916):
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven for Two Pianos, op. 86
These variations on a Beethoven bagatelle (op. 119) are like a spindle from which is cast a veritable maypole of permutations. The opening Andante, quoted almost verbatim, brightens with every revolution. With moods ranging from rapture (Agitato) and majesty (Appassionato; Allegro pomposo) to exuberance (both Vivaces) and tearful remembrance (Sostenuto), these colorful miniatures feed like a rainbow into the glowing waterfall of the final Fugue.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924):
Fantasia contrappuntistica for Two Pianos,Busoni-Verzeichnis 256b
What began as an ambitious attempt to complete the unfinished final movement of Bach’s almighty Die Kunst der Fuge turned into Busoni’s crowning achievement. Every gesture of this massive organism is rendered with the utmost artistry and given its full breadth in the exponential possibilities of a keyboard squared. The 10-minute introductory movement alone carries the weight of the whole. A series of fugues and variations “drops” like blocks in a Jacob’s ladder toy, of which the third Fugue and the Intermezzo stand out, the former for its overwhelming heights and the latter for its solemnity.

Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K. 448/375a
Far removed yet of the same passionate spirit is Mozart’s only sonata for two pianos, which receives here as lively a performance as one could ever hope for. Two no less than thrilling Allegros bookend a scintillating Andante, combining to form one of the composer’s most widely recognized pieces and closing this cohesive double album with a thick wax seal.

Since this release, Schiff has continued a longstanding relationship with ECM. Listen and find out where it all began.

Michelle Makarski: Caoine (ECM New Series 1587)

Michelle Makarski

Michelle Makarski violin
Recorded June 1995, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With such varied artists as Paul Giger, John Holloway, and Thomas Zehetmair vying for the violin enthusiast’s attention, ECM has revitalized the solo program perhaps more than any other label. Yet nowhere has it found such a colorful proponent of new and established repertoire alike as American musician Michelle Makarski. For Caoine, her first solitary ECM effort (she had previously appeared as soloist in Keith Jarrett’s Bridge of Light), Makarski has assembled a unique collection of music to be discovered. The program opens with the formidable “Passacaglia” of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, a composition whose methods and melodies are one in the same. What seems on the surface purely etudinal breeds its own robust musicality without ever flaunting itself as such. Its ostinato of G, F, E-flat, D is repeated 65 times, each successive variation requiring deeper attention on the part of the performer. Being one of the earliest extant paragons of solo violin literature, it is perhaps the ideal meta-statement with which to begin such an album. Although the piece employs the full gamut of techniques available to the virtuoso at the time of its composition (ca. 1670), the result is solemn and rich in cosmological potency. The visceral title track is by Stephen Hartke, one of America’s most distinctive composers who has seen minimal but vital representation on ECM. The title itself (pronounced “keen,” from which the English word of the same spelling is derived) is a Celtic word referring to, in the composer’s words, the “wail or dirge sung by professional mourners in old Ireland.” Hartke’s almost folkloristic approach nestles comfortably in its surroundings. It seems to round itself into an emotive orifice, projecting its cries through funereal motions with all the tenacity of a genuine inner grief. After this catharsis, Max Reger’s “Chaconne” (1910) returns our attention to the Baroque. While blatantly indebted in Bach, Reger follows his own bold trajectory in this rather demanding piece. Makarski negotiates its many turns with just the right balance of force and finesse, not to mention an expert control of harmonics. Selections from George Rochberg’s 50 Caprice Variations (1970) pave the way to a tender performance of Bach’s first Partita (1720). The Variations speak in their own idiosyncratic vocabularies, never afraid to admonish and alleviate in the same breath. Nos. 41 and 42 stand out for me, the former for its Prokofiev-like syncopation and the latter for its high metallic sheen. These deconstructions of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 speak directly to Rochberg’s essayistic fixations. As intertextual as they are self-negating, they comprise an homage individually wrapped in bite-sized morsels. As for the Bach, Makarski has felicitously chosen my favorite among the composer’s Sonatas and Partitas. Her performance of the captivating Allemande comes through with refined grace and rhythmic economy through to the sparingly realized finale.

What links these pieces is an appreciation of the originary motif as an aesthetic not necessarily of size, but more accurately of scale, mining the paradox of its highly expansive potential through the process of recapitulation. This is encapsulated most beautifully in the final track, in which Bach unpacks, not unlike Biber, a staggering amount of information from a mere handful of ordered gestures. Makarski’s profound recital is built as much around the variation of theme as around the theme of variation, pulling its red thread gracefully through four centuries of musical history in the span of a single CD.

Alternate cover

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