At Café Griensteidl with the Francoise-Green Duo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Schoenberg (arr. Berg), Wallace, Schubert: Antoine Francoise (piano), Robin Green (piano), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 14.1.2016. (LJ)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: C Major Sonata K. 521
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 arr. Berg
Andrew Wallace: Café Griensteidl
Franz Schubert: Fantasie in F Minor, D. 940.

Antoine Francoise and Robin Green, little and large, walked on stage looking the part of primo and secondo. Their programme was a well selected Viennese-themed array of pieces that included: Mozart’s C Major Sonata k.521 (1787), Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 arranged by Alban Berg in 1914, Café Griensteidl by Andrew Wallace (a RWCMD composition student) and Schubert’s infamous Fantasie in F minor d.940 (1828). This music of place idea is no doubt in readiness for their ‘The Viennese Salon’ residency at St John’s Smith Square later this year.

Francoise and Green’s performance of Mozart’s C Major Sonata was bright, chirpy and light – all suitable qualities in relation to its key. Their partnership was seamless and, considering the speed of this piece, their timing was impeccable. However, their heavy use of dynamics when going into the minor key during the second movement sounded slightly melodramatic and rather laboured the point. It’s a shame Francoise and Green began with Mozart as it sounded like a practice piece to steady their nerves before getting into the more technically demanding later works. As a result, the duo made Mozart’s layered work sound slightly trite rather than elegant. As they launched into Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Wagnerian leitmotifs were met by fantastic twelve tone diversions. The duo sounded at home playing this wonderfully enigmatic piece as they combined lyricism with tension to give a strong, noteworthy performance.

A moment must be taken to mention composer Andrew Wallace. Fitting in with Francoise and Green’s Vienna-themed evening, Wallace’s work brought the infamous Café Griensteidl – frequented by artists, musicians and writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthall and Hugo Wolf – to life. Somewhere between Federico Mompou, Erik Satie and jazz pianist John Taylor, Wallace’s work sounded ephemeral, textured, spacious and daring. It contained enough originality and intrigue to make Wallace an interesting composer, whose works I look forward to hearing. Francoise and Green’s performance of Wallace’s work was adept, thought-provoking and moving. Their affinity with contemporary music is unquestionable.

Schubert’s Fantasie was composed in the last year of his life. He dedicated this work to Karoline Esterházy, with whom he was in unrequited love. As a result, the piece contains ominous and pining qualities that express the pain Schubert endured. Those expecting the insight and maturity of Schubertians Paul Badura Skoda and Jörg Demus would have been surprised by Francoise and Green’s more outward rendition. The Francoise-Green duo managed to bring forward an altogether different and bolder colour. By taking the piece at a faster pace than expected, its tension seemed to bubble under the weight of Green’s secondo part. I found Francoise a little too fussy when performing Schubert’s wonderfully mysterious composition. Though he may have been picking up Mozartean influences to relate to the first piece of the evening, the Fantasie would have unveiled more of its anguish if he maximised its spaciousness. Paying homage to the silences in music, Artur Schnabel has commented: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.” A much subtler and more nuanced recording can be found in Emil and Elena Gilels’ performance for Deutsche Grammophon (463 652-2).

On the whole, the duo was especially suited to the more contemporary repertoire. This is not to say that the Mozart or Schubert sounded out of sorts, but when Francoise and Green launched into the Schoenberg and contemporary piece by Andrew Wallace, they were more at home with these atonal and minimalist works that made up the more ‘modern’ side of their recital. This natural sensibility when it comes to performing later works is what distinguishes the Francoise-Green duo from more famous duos, such as the Labèque sisters or Ashkenazy and Previn. Whilst the Labèque sisters are the go-to duo for minimalist French repertoire and Ashkenazy and Previn are your Rachmaninoff aficionados, Francoise and Green fill the gap for ‘challenging’ twentieth century works, giving them a firm place in classical music today.

Lucy Jeffery

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