Reviews

BUSONI Fantasia contrappuntistica • SATIE Trois morceaux en forme de poire • DEBUSSY Khamma • CASELLA Pupazzetti • HERSCHEL HILL Nocturne for two pianos • POULENC Sonate for piano four hands • Julian Jacobson & Mariko Brown (pn) • SOMMCD 0178 [79:18]
“This is a magnificent record. Anyone who might feel inclined to investigate music for two pianos or piano duet cannot do better than to hear the quite outstanding performances of the relatively wide variety of music such as this CD contains.
It is true that perhaps Milhaud’s Scaramouche could have been substituted for the Casella and Herschel Hill pieces to make a more ‘popular’ all-Gallic selection to balance the immensity of Busoni’s great intellectual and expressive masterpiece, but – as with most aspects of wishful-thinking – one cannot have everything, and I for one welcome this quite outstanding disc unreservedly.
It begins with the greatest work ever written for two pianos. Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica dates, in its final two-piano form, from 1921, and it is in this version (please don’t get involved in the work’s earlier manifestations) that the music is revealed in its full power and, indeed, glory. It comprehensively does so in this wonderful performance, easily the most compelling account I have ever heard.
What makes this performance so compelling is the emotional expression it conveys as the work inexorably moves to its final pages and Beethovenian abrupt conclusion, the emotional characteristics never dominating the grip of intellectual music thought which the Fantasia inhabits throughout. The recording balance is exemplary – everything is clear, the result of fine pianism and not artificial balance.
Nearing another musical extreme, Satie’s ‘three pieces in the form of a pear’ (rather more than three, although invariably sweet and tasteful in expression) come of course as a great contrast, if at times no less technically demanding for four hands at one keyboard than Busoni on two keyboards. Here, naturally, the tenor of the music is far lighter, if hardly lacking in subtleties, and – in its own way – as demanding of subtly understanding interpretation, as one hears admirably in the Enlevé movement.
With Debussy’s Khamma we enter the realm of the unbelievable, on several fronts. It is quite remarkable to learn that this is the world premiere recording of the original four-hand score of the master’s only ballet – nor is this an early, unrepresentative work, but an extraordinarily original late masterpiece – for masterpiece it most certainly is, despite Debussy’s self-deprecating comments and the rather wishy-washy reputation the work has had from writers who certainly ought to have known better.
What cannot be denied by the sympathetic listener is the interpretative quality and technical skill of Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown. Their performance of this work, as well as that of the Busoni, make the acquisition of this outstandingly well balanced and recorded disc an urgent necessity for any music-lover who takes their interest in the art seriously.
Casella’s five-movement, seven-minute suite for piano duet, Pupazetti (Puppets) was originally written for newcomers to the keyboard; as a work of art, it sits oddly against the Busoni and Debussy in this programme, but these miniatures are supremely well written for the duet medium, and the work overall certainly makes a welcome aperitif for the listener’s less-serious moments – as, in even less time, does Poulenc’s three-movement six-minute Sonate (yes, no mistakes there, even in the title).
Whereas the names of five of the six composers represented here will be known to almost all music-lovers, that of the English composer Anthony Herschel Hill (1939-2016) will not. According to Michael Quinn’s excellently informative booklet notes, Herschel Hill (a distant relative of William Herschel, composer, organist, discoverer of the planet Uranus and known to Haydn) completed 24 symphonies and fourteen concertos amongst other works. One assumes they were all conceived on a far larger scale than his Nocturne for two pianos, which Quinn tells us is an arrangement of an earlier work composed in memory of Hill’s father. It demonstrates a genuine gift for composition, perhaps owing something to a late French character, making it by no means an unsuitable piece to set beside Khamma.
The performances throughout, as I hope to have indicated, are in the highest class, and each item in this wide-ranging programme deserves to be heard by anyone who considers themselves to be a serious music-lover. This is a most intelligently planned disc; its presentation is excellent.”
Reviewer: Robert Matthew-Walker


“With apologies to readers and to the artists for the delayed appearance of this review, we are none the less pleased to report that the recital of music for piano duet given last July 7th at London’s Purcell Room by this well-known piano duet and two-piano team reinforced the consistently admirable musicianship of both players.

The opening piece, Nathan Williamson’s Instinctive Ritual, proved uncommonly interesting, holding the attention throughout its relatively brief (eight-minute) span – not least having been written by a composer whose understanding of the piano was manifest. Quite what was ‘instinctive’ about the evident ritualistic nature of the music one leaves to individual listeners, but here is a voice one hopes will be encountered in future larger-scaled works.

The remainder of the programme was made up of more familiar masterpieces: Schubert’s F minor Fantasie was compelling in its inner pulse and seamless flow – combining, as they ought, to ensure this incredible work made its proper mark and Poulenc’s great Sonata (not to be confused with his Sonata for two pianos) was splendidly projected, confirming once more that this adorable composer was not invariably drawn to the lighter side of life. Poulenc’s fellow Sixienne, Germaine Tailleferre, was represented by her very rarely heard Image from 1918. This work is so well laid out for four hands that one hopes this duo will investigate Tailleferre’s many other works for duet and for two pianos – a CD is surely long overdue of this excellent and very French music.

Two American works completed the programme: movements from Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs ballet suite (a kind of musical equivalent of the Magnificent Ambersons and the Red Pony), and Julian Jacobson’s brilliant arrangement of Gershwin’s concert masterpiece, the Second Rhapsody, which also very much deserves recording. A wonderful concert, most musically and intelligently planned throughout and outstandingly well played. “
(‘Musical Opinion’ magazine, issue no.1507, April-June 2016, London. Reviewer: James Palmer.)


“…it came as balm to the soul to encounter some real, sensitive music-making. It came from the piano duo of Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown, in the surroundings of St John’s Smith Square near the Houses of Parliament. It was one of St. Johns’s lunchtime concerts, one of those unsung concert series that are just as nourishing to the city’s musical life as the star-studded calendar of the big venues.

Just to be in that lovely space was balm in itself, with the sunshine filtering through the windows. It was the perfect setting for Schubert’s great F minor Fantasie, which crept into the space with resigned melancholy. The difficulty with this piece is to keep that opening atmosphere of lofty exaltation, through all the storm and stress and emotional violence that come later. This performance didn’t quite manage it, though it certainly gathered heft and grandeur as it unfolded. After that, the recital came down from the emotional heights with an intriguing collection of things, some exotic, some charming, some uproariously energetic. The title of Mariko Brown’s own Travels Through a Mist of Chinese Mountains set us up for one of those picturesque oriental mood-pictures we hear so often nowadays. In fact the piece neatly side-stepped the cliché, the plucked notes and wide-spaced harmonies of the opening offset by passages of tumultuous onrush. This traveller seemed to be undergoing a white-water ride.

Then came two discoveries (for me, at any rate). One was plucked out of Ravel’s fantasy opera L’Enfant et les Sortileges, in which household objects broken by a naughty boy come to life to chastise him. It has some delicious quirky set pieces which I’ve often thought would make good stand-alone pieces. Well, here were three of them; two waltzes and a fox-trot, arranged by a friend of Ravel’s, thrown off by the duo with knowing, light-fingered ease.

The other novelty came from George Gershwin. You might think that by now we’d know every corner of Gershwin’s music, but one piece, his Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, has languished more-or-less unplayed in its original version since its 1932 premiere. Julian Jacobson has laboured to make his own transcription of the Rhapsody, which here received its world premiere. It turned out to be an astonishing piece, not as prolific as the more famous Rhapsody in Blue in terms of hummable tunes, but going far beyond it in terms of harmonic adventure and cogent dramatic form. The tumultuous ending would have brought the house down, in a properly packed venue — which is surely what the piece deserves. Let’s hope that happens soon.”
(Ivan Hewett – Telegraph Online)


“The chief interest in Mariko Brown’s and Julian Jacobson’s lunchtime concert in St John’s in early June was the first performance of Jacobson’s transcription of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, also known as the Rhapsody in Rivets, initially for piano and orchestra. Gershwin wrote it in 1931 to accompany a sequence in the film Delicious, where it was severely truncated to fit the action.

It has hardly fared better since: given that Gershwin felt that ‘it is the best thing I have written’, it’s astonishing that the only published version is a re-orchestration by a staff arranger. Julian Jacobson therefore used Gershwin’s manuscript to prepare his four-hand version, which was revelatory. Shorn of its (inauthentic) orchestral colours, its true place in the modernist current can be heard: echoes of Prokofiev and Ravel are clear, for instance, as is a reference to The Rite of Spring. Most excitingly of all, it pointed the way to a subtle and original harmonic world – which Gershwin, of course, never lived to explore more fully. Brown and Jacobson brought a tingle of excitement to it, as if aware they were looking into the unknown; with further performances, it will pick up contrast and colours of its own. It is a major addition to the four-hand repertoire.

The other novelty, sandwiched between a thoughtful Schubert F minor Fantasie and two witty transcriptions by Lucien Garban from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, was Mariko Brown’s own Travels through a Mist of Chinese Mountains, a 9-minute tone-poem as atmospheric as a shanshui watercolour, clear-textured, inventive in its use of the instrument, and retaining a sense of mystery despite its range of moods.”
(Martin Anderson – International Piano)


“We were delighted to welcome the acclaimed piano duo of Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown to perform in our first concert of the new season. It was exuberant and joyous playing: gentle intensity in Bach and Schubert, enchantingly coloured Debussy Epigraphes Antiques followed by the hilarious Poulenc duet sonata. After the interval we were blown away by a mighty arrangement of the Meistersinger Overture, beguiled by Jacobson’s own Palm Court Waltz and went out humming after a bouncy and sexy Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue. They played, thought and matched each other throughout in musical understanding, beauty of sound and speed of reaction. We felt privileged to hear them.”
(Portsmouth Music Club)


“The Reform Club’s sedate grandeur and elegance, as manifest by Phileas Fogg before and after his eighty day world tour some one-hundred-and-forty years ago, was transformed into an atmosphere of expressive Romanticism and jazzy revelry at a superb duet recital by pianists Mariko Brown and Julian Jacobson on 29 October 2014. It is not widely known that this historic institution on London’s Pall Mall hosts internationally acclaimed artists, but on this occasion the large audience comfortably seated in the high-ceilinged and ornately decorated library were regaled in a majestic setting with leading artists interpreting a varied range of works for duet as part of a regular concert series (with a range of impressive international artists) presented by the Music Club, on a powerful and admirably resonant Steinway concert grand which had formerly adorned the Wigmore Hall.

The programme, framed by two major works with shorter pieces in between, began with a treasure of the duet repertoire, Schubert’s F minor Fantasy D 940, projected with richness and expression, formidable vigour and weight, as well as textural lucidity in the contrapuntal sections. The Jacobson-Brown duo impelled the final fugue with clarity and colour, the trills with delicacy. Mariko Brown etched the main theme with tenderness and inner sensibility while Julian Jacobson provided rich support for a romantic interpretation spilling over with mood and plangent atmosphere. There was much nuance in the phrasing thanks to some crisp, finely balanced articulation and colour, through which the drama and tenderness of Schubertian oppositions came alive in an involvingly passionate and poetic performance.

There followed a ravishing miniature by Louis Durey, the least known member of Les Six. Carillons, from Durey’s Op 7, inspired by church bells during a holiday in Italy, is a ravishing colouristic essay, in which Jacobson and Brown swept waves of rising and falling arpeggios in a resonant impressionistic palette, the sonority of individual bell patterns penetrating through the glowing wash. Piquant dances, transcribed from Ravel’s Les Sortilèges by Lucien Garban, ensued, with Jacobson and Brown pointing up the gentle waltz rhythms of Danse des Rainettes and the sprightly foxtrot of ‘Five o’clock’ with wit and panache.

The tour de force was yet to come, Jacobson’s own virtuoso transcription of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, a somewhat neglected work in relation to his Rhapsody in Blue. The duo propelled Gershwin’s scintillating orchestral textures and chirpy syncopated jazz rhythms with vigour and ebullience, bright and lyrical moments emerging in resplendent glow. It was apt for Jacobson to dedicate the work to a former mentor, now colleague at the Royal College of Music, the composer Joseph Horovitz, who, like Gershwin, is a master of the jazz-classical synthesis. Indeed the transcription showed Jacobson’s versatility as performer-arranger, their charismatic performance, full of keyboard wizardry whetting one’s appetite to see it in published and recorded in the very near future.
There was just enough time to reward the enthusiastic applause of a capacity audience with a treat: the ever popular Jamaican Rumba, by another of Jacobson’s mentors, Arthur Benjamin, here garbed in deliciously dance-like and rhythmic glitter.”

(Malcolm Miller – Music and Vision, 31/10/14)

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