GrauSchumacher Piano Duo at the Wigmore Hall

GrauSchumacherPianoDuo
GrauSchumacher Piano Duo

Richard Whitehouse on the UK premiere of a substantial new work from Philippe Manoury, along with homages to J.S. Bach from Busoni and Kurtág
Wigmore Hall, London Monday 19 October

J.S. Bach (arr. Kurtág): Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV106 – Sonatina; Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV643; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV687 (various)

Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica, BWV256b (1920, arranged for two pianos in 1921)

Manoury: Le Temps, mode d’emploi (2014) [UK premiere]

Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher (piano duo)

The GrauSchumacher Duo – comprising pianists Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher – follows in a distinguished lineage of such partnerships (among them Alphons and Aloys Kontarsky, or Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir), but at least in the UK is known primarily through its substantial discography (notably for the enterprising NEOS label) than for its live performances. All credit, then, to Wigmore Hall for scheduling this recital as part of its focus on contemporary music, and which featured the first British hearing for a major new work.

Now in his early sixties, Philippe Manoury is well established among his peers in Western Europe while enjoying occasional UK performances (his large-scale orchestral and choral piece Zeitlauf caused something of a stir in London three decades ago). Live electronics has been a constant presence in his music, and Le Temps, mode d’emploi is no exception. Lasting around 50 minutes, this falls into eight continuous sections in which the consciously-applied virtuosity of the pianists is underpinned by electronics in terms of spatial diffusion and textural stratification. At the same time, the music audibly evolves in terms of its salient motifs dispersed across the sound spectrum and that merge into an accumulation of activity exceeded only by the plethora of echoes heard towards the close. Cohesive, then, while also overly uniform in sonic profile (is it surprising that electronically treated piano timbre seems to have moved on only incrementally since Stockhausen’s Mantra half a century ago?), with the actual material rather less memorable than those processes to which it is being subjected.

What was undeniable was the alacrity with which GrauSchumacher tackled this epic among piano duos, or the clarity with which those from Experimental Studio of South-West German Radio projected the complex sound transformations throughout the fabled Wigmore acoustic.

Before the interval came a welcome hearing for Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica – a half-hour fantasy on, around and about Bach that began as a completion of his 14th contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue in 1910, soon to assume its definitive guise before being arranged for two pianos in 1921. This account pointed up the interplay of stark declamation and limpid passagework characterizing the initial chorale-variations, the increasing textural intricacy of the initial three fugues, then the tensile unfolding of the intermezzo with its three variations – leading, via a terse cadenza, to a climactic fourth fugue which was slightly underwhelming here, but the performance quickly regained focus for a haunting recollection of the chorale followed by the stretta (a concluding passage played at a faster tempo) that steers this piece through to its brief though magisterial conclusion.

An impressive reading overall, that gained from its having been placed in context with three Bach transcriptions by György Kurtág. Anyone present at one of the latter’s intimate recitals of these pieces with his wife may have found GrauSchumacher a touch too literal in overall execution, yet the sonatina from Bach’s Actus tragicus and the two chorale-preludes which followed evinced no lack of poise or elegance. Easy to overlook given what was to come, perhaps, while at the same time being telling instances of the maxim that ‘less is more’.

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