Review of January 12 Concert

Letchworth Music Club’s first concert of 2022 was a return to Howgills for the Belgian pianists
duo b!z’art, known to their friends as André Roe and Geoffrey Baptiste. Their programme, entitled “From the Palais Garnier to the Mariinsky Theatre”, focused on French and Russian composers and provided a tour around some of the less well-known corners of the piano duet repertoire, as well as more familiar favourites.

We began with a rarity – an arrangement (by the composer) of Borodin’s symphonic poem “In the Steppes of Central Asia”. André gave us the first of many informative introductions, demonstrating the contrasting themes of the piece. As often with piano arrangements of orchestral works, the loss of instrumental colour was compensated for by more clarity in the interweaving of themes, which the duo brought out deftly.

Next came the centrepiece of the first half – Bizet’s “Jeux d’Enfants”. As André explained in his introduction, this is something of a landmark in the history of piano four-hand music, inspiring both Ravel’s “Ma mère l’oye” and Debussy’s “Petite Suite”. The twelve pieces each represent a children’s game, with titles like “Les quatre coins (Puss in the Corner)” and “Saute-mouton (Leap-frog)”. This was an especially well-turned performance with the various childish moods and activities sharply portrayed. Both players seemed to enjoy these pieces immensely, Geoffrey (who played the higher Primo part) ending the more lively numbers with an expressive flourish.

No programme of French and Russian music would be complete without some Stravinsky, and his misleadingly-titled “Three Easy Pieces” followed. The composer’s love of rhythmic drive and sharp dissonances were much in evidence, giving the duo a chance to show a spikier, more brittle sound quality. The first half was rounded off with a return to the Russian ‘Mighty Handful’ composers, this time César Cui and his Scherzo in F. This was unfamiliar to me but proved a rousing finale to the half, despite the unusual feature for a Scherzo of beginning with a chorale-style melody.

The second half began with Debussy’s “Six Epigraphes Antiques”, an example of the composer’s interest in the ancient world, featuring modal and whole-tone scales to create an otherworldly mood. André and Geoffrey seized the opportunity to display another set of tonal colours, taking particular pleasure in the contrast Debussy makes of different ranges of pitch, including fine detail in the extreme bass. The Howgills Bechstein unsurprisingly suited this music perfectly.

We were then wrenched into the modern age (ie the 1920s) with Satie’s suite “La belle excentrique”, as André explained a representation of the Montmartre cabarets where Satie played piano in his youth. Both players were clearly enjoying themselves in the mixture of lively popular tunes with some characteristic oddities of harmony and rhythm.

The fitting finale to a generous programme came with the Suite Op. 11 by Rachmaninov, a fine and entirely characteristic work that bears comparison with his great Suite No. 2 for two pianos. There are six pieces, including a Barcarolle combining quicksilver passagework with rich and expressive harmonies, a brilliant Scherzo, a beautiful and heartfelt Romance, and a finale called “Slava” (Gloria) which builds a simple figure into an immense wall of sound. Both pianists were entirely equal to the demands of the work in both dexterity and sound-production, and a recital that had featured much delicate and intricate music ended with a satisfying display of power and virtuosity. As a little palate- cleanser, the duo’s encore was a gentle dance by the Colombian composer Escobar (as André said, no relation to Pablo), giving the well-entertained audience some warmth to take out into the January night.