Piano Music for Six Hands; The Shape of the Future?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Piano Triets, Severnside Composers’ Alliance Recital, Colston Hall 2, Bristol, 4.4.2012 (RJ)

If you look up the word “triet” in a dictionary, you will draw a blank. It is the (fairly recent) invention of John Pitts, the “curator” of this recital devoted to works for three people playing one piano. The reasoning is simple: if you can have duets, why not triets?

Piano duets are well established, and rightly so. Playing the piano is a solitary business, while playing duets is a social activity – one reason why Schubert was a great enthusiast for this genre. But lining up three people to play just one piano can create problems, and during this event there were indications that the performers were cramped for space (even though they were all relatively slim) and there was the ever-present danger that their hands would collide during the performances. The keyboard was projected onto a screen above the piano enabling the audience to witness a number of near misses.

However, triets are not a completely new idea. Grainger and Schnittke composed them; the Bavarian Music Academy has organised seven triet competitions since, 1998, and the Trinity Guildhall Examining Board in the UK includes them on its exam syllabus. “Triets tend to require of the pianists great co-ordination, precision and ensemble skills, and very careful listening and sensitivity. The medium allows greater interplay between different layers, richer harmonies, the potential for greater exploration of the piano’s sonorities and textures,” claims Mr Pitts. So I settled down in my seat waiting to be convinced.

Most of the works on the programme were short. The shortest were five Piquant Pieces by the Norwegian composer Kaja Bjorntvelt and are designed to offer piano students the opportunity to play together. To illustrate this point Andre Shlimon was joined by two of his piano pupils, Kate and Tom Bentley. While the pieces, derived partly from the harmonies and rhythms of Norwegian folk music, were lively enough, I’m not sure that I would go out of my way to hear them again. However, I can see that they would be attractive to young learners.

All but one of the composers featured are still alive. I found the two pieces from Paul Robinson’s collection Maison Satie delightful and satisfying, with Montmartre showing a spiritual affinity with Gershwin’s An American in Paris. There was also plenty of Gallic wit in Roger Boutry’s three movement Le voleur d’étincelles (The Spark Thief) which was sparky in character and seemed to end in a firework display.

The first world premiere of the evening was Fantasy on a theme by Steve Reich by the Greek composer Dionysis Boukouvalas. Based on Reich’s Piano Phase, an ostinato pattern of twelve beats, the theme is subjected to “a series of richly resonant harmonic transformations crowned by a halo or counter-rhythmic figures in the treble range and supported by slowly moving sustained chords in the lower register” – to quote Jolyon Laycock. The intensity and complexity built up as the work progressed, and it was possible to discern similarities in StReich Three, a homage to Reich by the Bristol-based alternative-classical pianist and composer Andre Shlimon.

John Pitts’ contribution was Are You Going? Described as a “polyphonic romp”, it received its first airing at the 2010 Kiev Chamber Music Festival and is notable for its seven-beat bars and sections in which one or other of the pianists accelerates or decelerates as if attempting to overtake the others. The folk melody Scarborough Fair appears in various transformations throughout the work, but because so much was happening around it, this was not immediately obvious.

Ménage â trois by Jacques Castérède proved to be a comic playlet involving a piano. First two of the pianists get up and dance, and later the lady pianist takes over – much to the irritation of the men who sit down on either side of her and bang on the keys.

The three (Daniella Acker, Jolyon Laycock and Andre Shlimon) were in a much more sober mood, however, for Laycock’s Threnody for David in memory of David Bedford, the former chairman of the Severnside Composers’ Alliance. It takes the form of a slowly unfolding melody based on eight-note “sea-chords” – a thoughtful and moving piece with dense, slowly changing chromatically saturated textures.

The programme featured two more world premieres: Tintinnabulation II by Brian Inglis and Christopher Scobie, and Frank Harvey’s Double Vision, followed by Alfred Schnittke’s Hommage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich (1979). By the end of the evening although I was not wholly convinced that the triet idea would catch on, I accepted that it worked well with some of the pieces. Yet I could not help feeling that two virtuoso pianists could easily cope with music written for six hands – and be much more comfortable doing so. But there’s no denying that an interesting evening was had by all.

Severnside Composers’ Alliance (comprising composers in the Bath and Bristol area) organise concerts and lectures throughout the year. For further information about their activities consult their website: www.severnsidecomposersalliance.co.uk.

Roger Jones