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Two Pianos, Four Hands, Many Twists

02.15.10
Jonathan Biss
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

In the 19th century orchestral and chamber works were often transcribed for piano duet so that those who couldn’t attend concerts might still hear the latest symphony or opera. These duets were considered more suitable for the parlor than the concert hall, where two virtuoso egos would be uncomfortably squashed together on one piano bench. Four-hand two-piano works had more appeal for the reigning superstars, even allowing them to indulge in some lively onstage one-upmanship.

There was no clash of egos on Wednesday evening at the 92nd Street Y, when Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss treated die-hard piano fans (who braved treacherous streets and a blizzard warning) to a superlative partnership. As soloists, the two superb pianists offer insightful and profoundly expressive music making; here they proved ideally matched collaborators.

The program included Beethoven’s transcription of his “Grosse Fuge,” written in 1825 as the final movement to the Op. 130 String Quartet. Beethoven was persuaded by his publisher to replace the gritty, dissonant fugue, which understandably baffled listeners, with a more digestible finale.

The publisher commissioned a four-hand piano version of the fugue. In a genteel 19th-century parlor, hearing the piano arrangement (played here on two pianos) must have been like listening to a heavy-metal band at afternoon tea. Even upon repeated hearings the fugue never fails to shock, although the piano version is less startling than the original.

Mr. Biss and Mr. Goode didn’t prettify any of the rough edges, offering a vigorous performance that confirmed Stravinsky’s remark that the fugue is an “absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

The duo also offered a witty, sharp-edged rendition of Stravinsky’s two-piano arrangement of his ballet “Agon.” A collaboration with Balanchine, the work — which blends divergent musical aesthetics — was transcribed by Stravinsky as a rehearsal score for the dancers.

The program opened with a colorfully evocative rendition of Debussy’s “En blanc et noir,” followed by an elegant performance of his arrangement of Schumann’s Six Pieces in Canonic Form, originally written for pedal piano (an instrument fitted with a pedal board similar to an organ’s, allowing bass notes to be played with the feet).

The two pianists shared one instrument for a richly hued, glowing interpretation of Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor.