Free time, time for leisure, is an increasingly scarce blessing for many of us; and this is slightly ironic if we consider that technology should, in principle, free us from many tasks. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the middle to upper classes did in fact have much more free time, and their ways to spend it were of course very different from our own. Now, most of us would watch a movie on the web; the preceding generations would watch TV, listen to the radio, or play a disk on the gramophone. Before that, a very common option (and probably one much healthier both on the physical and on the mental plane) was to make music together: a music to be enjoyed primarily by the players themselves, and possibly by a small circle of family and friends.
Many members of the bourgeoisie (particularly girls and women) could play the piano; and the loneliness connected with solo piano playing could easily be eliminated by joining forces and performing four-hands piano duet. Another added advantage was that even with the limited skills of amateur players, a four-hands piece sounds much more interesting than one for solo piano of comparable difficulty. (This did not rule out, of course, the possibility of writing or transcribing four-hands pieces of a very high technical and musical complexity, conceived for performance by professionals).
The “domestic” quality of much four-hands piano playing impacted on the style of many original works for this ensemble. While several symphonic and choral works were transcribed for four hands, primarily for the purpose of allowing composition students to familiarize themselves with seldom-performed large-scale works, many pieces whose first destination was the four-hands duet have certain homely features, a tinge of irony, or simply mirror other pastimes which used to entertain the bourgeoisie.
This is the case with several of the works recorded in this CD. The “cosy” dimension of music-making is particularly evident in the case of Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite. In fact, the composer was in principle against the idea of giving programmatic titles to his piano compositions; notwithstanding this, both each of the pieces and the suite as a whole do tell a story, and their tale is delightful, lovely and amusing. The protagonist and dedicatee of the cycle was a very young girl, Dolly, the daughter of the composer’s lover. The pieces mark some important events and stages of the child’s life, depicting them with an affectionate gaze, in which a touch of irony does not poison the genuine enchantment of the portrayal.
The first piece, Berceuse, had been written by a very young Fauré in 1864, and was slightly reworked for inclusion in Dolly Suite. It marked the child’s first birthday, and seems to accompany her dreams with its rocking gestures and its exquisite tenderness. At Dolly’s second birthday, she was able to speak; but, as happens to many children of that age, she articulated her words rather poorly, forcing the adults to guess the missing letters and mispronounced words. Thus, Monsieur Raoul, Dolly’s brother, became miaou in the child’s idiosyncratic language; the fact that miaou is also the French spelling for a cat’s meow is a funny coincidence. Similary, Kitty-valse (understood by most English-speaking readers as being somehow related to a cat) was originally intended as a homage to Ketty, Dolly’s… dog. The pet animal is portrayed very vividly by Fauré’s music, in one of the most lively pieces of the set. The preceding movement, Le jardin de Dolly, is instead one of the most refined; it contains a self-citation, excerpted from Fauré’s own violin Sonata, and celebrates New Year’s Day 1895. Tendresse was in turn “recycled” from a previously-written piece, originally dedicated to an acquaintance; it is another moment of enchanted poetry, where the increasing complexity of the musical language seems to reflect the dedicatee’s increasing capability to understand the world of the adults. The final piece, Le pas espagnol, is an exotic evocation of Spain, a country which represented Fairyland in the eyes of many French people (“having a castle in Spain” meaning something fabulous and wonderful). By concluding the cycle with this movement, Fauré seems to suggest that adults should carefully preserve their capability to dream, to use their fantasy in the same way as the children constantly do; Dolly’s learning to appreciate the exoticism of Spanish music (a task which implies some familiarity with music, its structure and language) should give her just one more possibility to dream, rather than flattening her fantasy on the plane of pure intellectual knowledge.
Another kind of exoticism – in this case the archaic evocation of past systems of organization of the sounds – dominates the second cycle performed here, Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite. In fact, the closest parallel to Fauré’s Dolly Suite among Debussy’s works is certainly Children’s corner, for solo piano, similarly composed for a child (the musician’s own daughter, “Chouchou”), and similarly playing on the border between a father’s tenderness and an adult’s irony. Petite Suite is slightly less descriptive (particularly as concerns the last two movements, which are fascinating modern reinterpretations of ancient dances, but which do not aim at narrating a story or depicting a landscape). The first two pieces, instead, pay homage to the symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine, one of Debussy’s reference points under many aspects. En bateau is another demonstration of Debussy’s extraordinary ability to suggest water in music (as shown in countless pieces, from La mer to Jardins sous la pluie, to cite but two). The festive Cortège is a colourful movement, full of fascinating imagery; the refined elegance of Menuet, the courtly dance par excellence, is followed by the brilliant closing piece, Ballet. This cycle was composed for, and played by Debussy with, his friend and publisher Durand (just as Fauré was in turn very keen of performing his Dolly Suite with several friends).
Rachmaninov’s Six morceaux are among his best known early compositions; here, the technical innovations of the Lisztean piano performance style are wedded with a language which owes much both to the Russian “art music” (embodied by Tchaikowsky) and to the even more genuine folklore of the popular tradition. The most “Russian” of the pieces are certainly the third, with its refined use of tunes adopting modal traits which sound exotic in the context of textbook harmony, and the unforgettable Slava: echoing the magnificent evocations of the Easter celebrations, realized for example by Rimsky Korsakov, this marvellous pealing of bells transforms the piano into a colourful orchestra. The other pieces are possibly more traditional, alluding to forms and styles typical for the nineteenth-century piano literature; however, they are reinterpreted through the lens of Rachmaninov’s own virtuosity and musical language, with a remarkable originality and fantasy. The initial Barcarolle is a clear homage to the piece by Chopin bearing the same title; at the same time, the Venetian atmosphere becomes a languid and melancholic evocation of the past with a nostalgic vein, without disdaining brighter moments and an impressive building-up of musical tension. The Scherzo is built on an energetic rhythm, transforming it into a whirlwind of brilliance and fantasy; the Valse is yet again in the mood of many of Chopin’s works, even though Rachmaninov’s own traits clearly emerge against the background of the refined dance of the Romantic salons, while Romance, entirely dominated by a dark and sombre colour, is the perfect background preparing the scene for the shining light of Slava.
The union of memory, childhood, affections and piano playing, found in the other suites recorded here, flows once more in the last collection of this CD, Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs. Barber was one of the most gifted British composers of the twentieth century; yet, he is now remembered mostly for a handful of pieces (including the famous Adagio for strings), sometimes neglecting other exquisite gems of his oeuvre. This is the case of Souvenirs, which is a recollection of the composer’s childhood, when he used to be accompanied by his mother to the Plaza Hotel, where they would have tea together and listen to the music played by the local band. This had happened in the mid-1910s, where a whole series of new musical genres (particularly connected to dance music) were taking audiences by storm. Their impact on the musical imagination of a gifted child – as was Barber at that time – can hardly be imagined; so that his later recollection of those moments (tinged by nostalgia, but also bearing witness to the powerful impression he had felt) is both faithful to the atmosphere of a distant past and sifted through the musical understanding of a by now adult composer.
Six kind of dances are represented in these Souvenirs, evoking the atmosphere of “about 1914, epoch of the first tangos”, as recalled by Barber himself. His memories, he affirmed, were “remembered with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness”. The set had been conceived, once more, “to play with a friend”; later, “Lincoln Kirstein suggested I orchestrate them for a ballet”, which was eventually commissioned by The Ballet Society. The suite consists of dances both old and new: there are some nineteenth-century evergreens, such as the Waltz and the Schottische, the “ecossaise” of old that had been a favourite of composers such as Beethoven and Schubert; there are more classical dance-forms, such as the pas de deux, along with novelties such as what Barber calls “hesitation tango”, together with an innovative “two-step” and a frenzied gallop.
Though several of the suites recorded in this CD were eventually transcribed for orchestral ensembles, by the composers themselves or by other musicians (Barber’s work became his own Ballet Suite; Debussy’s Petite Suite was given orchestral form by Henri Busser in 1907, while Fauré’s Dolly Suite had been orchestrated the preceding year by Henri Rabaud), their original instrumental destination is indeed integral to their concept. Of course, there are here different degrees of musical and technical complexity, mirroring the occasions for their composition and their intended performers and audiences; however, they all bear witness to the intimate pleasure of playing together on a single keyboard. The physical proximity is a powerful symbol for spiritual closeness, for friendship and affection; and, by sharing a single instrument, the individual differences between the players are somewhat reduced, so that, in the best of cases, a piano duet may sound as an organic whole, as a four-handed musical being transcending the individuality of the two players. It is a close circle of friendship and music, in which the listener is warmly invited to join.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
The Metis Piano Duo was born around 2014, from the meeting between the two pianists Loretta Proietti and Alessandra Felice, both coming from a wide experience in chamber music. Their common passion for chamber repertoire and in particular for piano duo, gave birth to a natural exchange and fusion of opinions, creating a particular artistic and musical understanding. The idea of Metis Piano Duo name, must be sought first of all in the common interest in ancient Greek literature. In particular Metis has implicit meaning of “cunning of intelligence”, because Metis, a very mighty goddess in Greek mythology, personified wisdom, reason and intelligence, able to identify the best way for the successful solution to the traps of life. The Duo repertoire ranges from the classic period to the contemporary one, touching the most important composition of this formation. They have performed in numerous concert halls, receiving wide public and critical acclaim. The piano Duo has improved with M° Konstatin Bogino, Laura Pietrocini, Orazio Maione, Vladimir Ogarkov, Daniel Rivera. In parallel to the concert activity, they both carry out didactic activity in the soloist and chamber field, collaborating with various academies.
Claude Debussy: (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. One of the most important musicians of his time, his harmonic innovations had a profound influence on generations of composers. He made a decisive move away from Wagnerism in his only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and in his works for piano and for orchestra he created new genres and revealed a range of timbre and colour which indicated a highly original musical aesthetic.
Gabriel Fauré: (b Pamiers, Ariège, 12 May 1845; d Paris, 4 Nov 1924). French composer, teacher, pianist and organist. The most advanced composer of his generation in France, he developed a personal style that had considerable influence on many early 20th-century composers. His harmonic and melodic innovations also affected the teaching of harmony for later generations.
Samuel Barber (b West Chester, PA, 9 March 1910; d New York, 23 Jan 1981). American composer. One of the most honoured and most frequently performed American composers in Europe and the Americas during the mid-20th century, Barber pursued, throughout his career, a path marked by a vocally inspired lyricism and a commitment to the tonal language and many of the forms of late 19th-century music. Almost all of his published works – including at least one composition in nearly every genre – entered the repertory soon after he wrote them and many continue to be widely performed today.
Sergey Rachmaninov: (b Oneg, 20 March/1 April 1873; d Beverly Hills, CA, 28 March 1943). Russian composer, pianist and conductor. He was one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism. The influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers soon gave way to a thoroughly personal idiom, with a pronounced lyrical quality, expressive breadth, structural ingenuity and a palette of rich, distinctive orchestral colours.