Bizjak Piano Duo — Repertoire for Two Pianos and for Piano Four-Hands

Cite this article as:

Lidija Bizjak. (September 29, 2021). Bizjak Piano Duo — Repertoire for Two Pianos and for Piano Four-Hands. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 25, 2024. https://ijm.education/piano/bizjak-piano-duo-repertoire-for-two-pianos-and-for-piano-four-hands/

The Hits

The first sound image that comes to my mind when I think of the duet is the beginning of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor, D.940. These four bars of the broken accord, swaying for some, panting for others, set the stage for one of the most famous themes. Everything Schubert is there — mystery, melancholy, or, as one little boy described to us after a concert, “It takes place in a dark forest!” It is no coincidence that we find this Fantasia on the legendary recording by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu (a dream team!). Schubert’s four-handed repertoire is a mine full of precious stones.

This is also the case of Mozart, who, apart from the Andante and Variations in G major, K. 501, left us four sonatas for four hands, the most outstanding being K. 497 in F major — which is on a par with his great operas — and, above all, the Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448, where each of the three movements presents the pinnacle of Mozart’s art. We advise you to listen to the two great Mozart sonatas for four hands by Kirill Gerstein and Ferenc Rados, published by Myrios. A rare moment of know-how and spontaneity.

The list of “hits” would not be complete without Ravel’s La valse and Witold Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini. The famous violin theme is enriched by Lutoslawski by daring rhythms and harmonies. A meteoric surge of energy in just 6 minutes! When in La valse, I find that it is the best version of all those made by Ravel; here, we can dialogue freely and turn together in a furious whirlwind that inevitably leads us towards a tragedy — the tragedy that was already being felt in the old world in this year of 1920.

Among the lesser-known works of the piano duo repertoire, we should not forget Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion as well as En blanc et noir by Debussy — two masterpieces that offer an incredible field of research and are a pleasure to play.

Last but not least, we should add the concertos for two pianos and orchestra by Mozart and Poulenc.

Originals Vs Transcriptions

Many composers have written for this curious ensemble in which we performers are sometimes too far away and sometimes too close (sometimes even those of us who share music with our own family).

Some composers who have written for piano four-hands:

  • Beethoven: Sonata in D major, Op. 6; Eight Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67; Six Variations on ‘Ich denke dein’, WoO 74.
  • Mendelssohn: Andante and Variations, Op. 83a; Allegro brillant, Op. 92.)
  • Schumann: Images d’Orient, Op. 66.
  • Dvořák: Legends, Op. 59; Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 & Op. 72.
  • Grieg: Norwegian Dances, Op. 35.
  • Bizet: Jeux d’enfants, Op. 22.
  • Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56.
  • Debussy: Petite suite; Six épigraphes antiques.
  • Ravel: Ma mère l’Oye.
  • Poulenc: Sonata, FP 8.
  • Satie: La belle excentrique (French: The Eccentric Beauty); Trois morceaux en forme de poire (French: Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear).
  • Rachmaninoff: Six Pieces, Op. 11.
  • Barber: Souvenirs, Op. 28.
  • Stravinsky: Three Easy Pieces; Five Easy Pieces.
  • Kurtág: Játékok (Hungarian: Games).
  • Beffa: Mirages.

Literature for two pianos opens up a sound field and even richer writing possibilities:

  • Mozart: Fugue in C minor, K. 426.
  • Chopin: Rondo in C major, Op. 73
  • Liszt: Concerto pathétique, S. 258.
  • Saint-Saëns: Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 35.
  • Chabrier: España; Trois valses romantiques (French: Three Romantic Waltzes).
  • Debussy: Lindaraja.
  • Poulenc: Sonata, FP 156; Capriccio (after Le bal masqué), FP 155; L’embarquement pour Cythère, FP 150.
  • Shostakovich: Concertino, Op. 94.
  • Jolivet: Hopi Snake Dance.
  • Messiaen: Visions de l’Amen.
  • Boulez: Structures.
  • Stravinsky: Sonata; Concerto.
  • Rachmaninov: Fantaisie-tableaux (Suite No. 1), Op. 5; Suite No. 2, Op. 17.
  • Bolcom: Recuerdos; The Garden of Eden.
  • Adams: Hallelujah Junction.
  • Stockhausen: Mantra.
  • Ligeti: Three Pieces.
  • Kagel: Capriccio.

Bach left us the BWV 1060, 1061 and 1062 concertos for two keyboards, as well as those for three (BWV 1063 and 1064) and even four keyboards (BWV 1065). Mozart’s Concerto K. 242 can be played on two or three pianos. Bruch and Martinů also wrote concertos, and 21st-century composers are increasingly writing for this ensemble.

We played Gezi Park by Fazıl Say recently and will soon discover a concerto by the Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova in three movements: Together, Remember and Dance. Besides, we advise you to consult the activities of the Labèque sisters, who have commissioned a fascinating number of contemporary creations — Berio, Andriessen, Boesmans, Glass or Nico Muhly.

Many composers have transcribed their own works or those of their colleagues:

  • Brahms is in the middle of the field between the originals and the transcriptions. The Hungarian Dances and Variations on a Theme by Haydn were created by himself and Clara Schumann. His emblematic Op. 34 was originally written for string quintet and later revised as Piano Quintet, Op. 34, but its third version (Sonata, Op. 34b) for two pianos is the favourite.
  • Liszt was the master of the genre, transcribing the symphonies of Beethoven and Berlioz, the Danse macabre by Saint-Saëns for two pianos, or paraphrasing the opera Don Giovanni.
  • Bernstein chose excerpts from West Side Story to create his Symphonic Dances, transcribed for two pianos by John Musto.
  • Thomas Adès arranged a Concert Paraphrase for two pianos from his opera Powder Her Face.
  • Beethoven takes care of his Grosse fugue in its four hands version.
  • Apart from La valse, the Rapsodie espagnole and the Boléro, Ravel has wonderfully rendered Debussy’s Nocturnes for two pianos, and, considering the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as “the most perfect work that has ever been composed,” he arranged it for four hands.
  • After transcribing Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, Rachmaninoff wrote his Symphonic Dances — before the orchestral version — and created them with Vladimir Horowitz!
  • Before leaving this task to his friend Otto Singer, Richard Strauss started arranging his works for four hands, including the symphonic fantasy Aus Italien (From Italy), Op. 16.
  • Reger takes care of all of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
  • Zemlinsky “translates” Mahler’s 6th Symphony.
  • Dukas makes his faithful arrangement of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
  • Satie of his ballet Parade.
  • Milhaud of his Le bœuf sur le toit (French: The Ox on the Roof).

Gershwin’s two great works were first written for two pianos: the “jazz concerto” Rhapsody in Blue and the symphonic poem An American in Paris. It is the piano for four hands, in particular, that allowed the diffusion of the symphonic and lyrical repertoire in the salons of Europe. Like a vintage radio and CD! The publishing houses had their arrangers: Hugo Urlich and Otto Singer at Peters, Léon Roques at Durand (a magnificent version of Daphnis and Chloe).

The transcriptions provide a sort of x-ray of the original work. In the absence of not having instrumental timbres, we can hear the musical discourse more clearly. This is the case of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring — both arranged for four hands by Stravinsky himself and premiered by Debussy and Stravinsky, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms by Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s 1st Symphony by Riyaku Terashima (beautifully played by Martha Argerich with different partners), or the one Bartók himself did of his Miraculous Mandarin.

The American composers also left us a few gifts: Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano inspired Thomas Adès to transcribe the No. 7, Frederic Rzewski arranged his Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, and John Adams used the motifs of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Sonata Op. 110 for his Roll Over Beethoven quartet transcribed for two pianos later.

In a completely different sound register are Kurtag’s arrangements of J.S. Bach’s Chorales, often played by himself and his wife on an upright piano with the soft pedal, offer us little miracles.

Ensembles and Rare Works

Czerny, Koželuch, Malcolm Arnold and Alfred Schnittke each wrote a concerto for four-hand pianos and orchestra. Brahms combines the four-hand piano with the vocals in his Liebeslieder Waltzes. Schumann made an even more beautiful 2nd version of his Andante and Variations for two pianos, two cellos and one horn. Paul Bowles wrote a Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion (very pleasant to play). In addition to the unmissable Carnival of the Animals of Saint-Saëns, featuring eleven instruments —including two pianos, Guillaume Connesson offered us Jurassic Trip for the same ensemble.

And thanks to the Palazzetto Bru Zane — the centre for French Romantic music in Venice, we discovered minor or never played works by Jadin, Boëly, Onslow, Büsser… and rare works by Debussy (Diane overture, Le triomphe de Bacchus).

Among the rare works, we should also mention a few female composers: Amy Beach, Cécile Chaminade, Mélanie Bonis, Marie Jaëll, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Germaine Tailleferre, Barbara Pentland, Louise Talma, Aleksandra Vrebalov…

You can sometimes have up to forty fingers on a single keyboard (Lavignac’s Galop-Marche for Eight Hands) and even sixteen hands on two pianos (Canonica’s Polka concertata). This is definitely as close as you can get to sharing music! And, if, by chance, you have six pianos at home, you can have fun with the opening of The Marriage of Figaro in the arrangement of Marc-Olivier Dupin!

Conclusion

As I bring this exploration of the captivating realm of piano duo repertoire to a close, the resounding echoes of two pianos or four hands on a shared keyboard resonate with the rich tapestry of musical experiences. From the haunting allure of Schubert’s Fantasia to the rhythmic brilliance of Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini, the journey through classical, romantic, and contemporary works has been a revelation, showcasing the enduring allure of this unique ensemble.

Our exploration touched upon the brilliance of Mozart, Ravel, and Debussy, laying bare the depth and diversity inherent in the piano duo landscape. The spotlight on lesser-known gems like Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Debussy’s En blanc et noir emphasized the wealth of artistic expression found within the repertoire.

The inclusion of concertos for two pianos and orchestra expanded our horizons, with Mozart and Poulenc taking center stage, offering harmonious dialogues and virtuosic interplay. The foray into contemporary compositions, from Fazıl Say’s Gezi Park to Dobrinka Tabakova’s intriguing concerto, underscored the evolving nature of piano duo compositions.

Our discussion further delved into the nuanced interplay between originals and transcriptions, revealing the transformative power of rearranging works for piano duo. From the masters like Brahms and Liszt to modern composers like Bernstein and Adès, the spectrum of transcriptions added depth and dimension, inviting listeners to rediscover familiar compositions in a new light.

The comprehensive list of composers, whether through original creations or transcriptions, reflects the enduring popularity and adaptability of the piano duo across diverse musical styles and eras. The inclusion of rare works and contributions from female composers adds layers of inclusivity and diversity, enriching the tapestry of piano duo repertoire.

I invite you to join me in embracing the joy of shared musical experiences. Whether through well-known classics or hidden treasures, the piano duo remains a captivating and ever-evolving medium, extending an open invitation for musicians and audiences to partake in the shared joy of musical exploration.

Bon partage pianistique!

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