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!
Bon partage pianistique!
Learn More About Piano Duo Repertoire
Upcoming Dates for the Bizjak Sisters
- October 27 — Belgrade (Serbia), Kolarac Concert Hall. Bizjak Piano Duo & Muzikon Chamber Orchestra: Arnold, Koželuch.
- October 28 — Sombor (Serbia), Festival SOMUS. (Same program as above.)
- November 18 — Cordoba (Spain), Rafael Orozco Piano Festival. Sanja Bizjak: Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók.
- December 18 — Paris (France), La Seine Musicale. Bizjak Piano Duo, Orchestre de chambre Pelléas & Benjamin Levy: Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.
- January 4 — Angers (France). Lidija Bizjak & Gabriel Pidoux Wind Quintet: Mozart, Beethoven, Poulenc.
- February 25, 26 & 27 — Mulhouse (France). Bizjak Piano Duo, Orchestre symphonique de Mulhouse, Jordan Gudefin & Julie Depardieu: Arnold, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns, Connesson.