Friday, 11 April 2014

Extremely fine performances of works for two pianos and percussion by Hungarian composer, Peter Eötvös, from the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, Schlagquartett Koln and Paulo Alvares on a new release from Wergo

The Hungarian composer, conductor and teacher Peter Eötvös was born in Transylvania in 1944. He studied composition at the Budapest Academy of Music and conducting at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Between 1968 and 1976 he performed regularly with the Stockhausen Ensemble and, from 1971 to 1979, he collaborated with the electronic music studio of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne. In 1978, at the invitation of Pierre Boulez, he conducted the inaugural concert of IRCAM in Paris, and was subsequently named musical director of the Ensemble InterContemporain, a post he held until 1991.

From 1985-1988 he was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and has held posts with numerous orchestras such as the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the National Philharmonic Orchestra (Budapest), the Radio Chamber Orchestra of Hilversum, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna. He has also worked with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonia, Wiener Philharmoniker, Cleveland Orchestra and NHK Orchestra Tokyo.

He has long been considered one of the most significant and influential personalities on the music scene as both an internationally recognized conductor and a composer of successful operas, orchestral works and concertos, written for well-known artists from all over the world.

He has taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne and Karlsruhe and gives regular master classes and seminars throughout Europe. He established his International Eötvös Institute in 1991 and the Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation in 2004 in Budapest for young composers and conductors.

Wergo  have just released recordings of three important works by Eötvös, Sonata per Sei, Psalm 151 and Kosmos. These works that date from as early as 1961 through to 2006 give an excellent cross section of his work.

WER 6784 2

The GrauSchumacher Piano Duo (Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher) are joined by the members of the Schlagquartett Koln  and Paulo Alvares (Sampler-Keyboard)  for Sonata per sei for two pianos, three percussionists and sampler keyboard (2006). Eötvös has twice re-arranged an earlier piano concerto written for the 125th anniversary of Bela Bartok’s birth in 2006, once as a concerto for two pianos and orchestra and in the present form of a Sonata per sei (for six – players). The sampler keyboard not only extends the sounds of the pianos and percussion but alters these sounds.
The first movement is marked Crotchet = 86 where drums open in a light, rhythmically varying motif before the pianos enter in a rising theme. Other percussion instruments sound in the background as the sampler keyboard gives a broader texture to the sound. The music increases in tempo with the pianos augmented by the harmonies of the sampler keyboard. The piano parts become more complex with, eventually, some rather Bartókian intervals before the drums lead to a slowing of the tempo.

The second movement, Minim = 69, brings a rapid rising and falling motif for the pianos open broken up by sudden rhythmic changes. Suddenly percussion and sampler keyboard enter as the tempo re-gains its momentum reaching a momentary climax before slowing, with a variety of percussion sounds that perfectly compliment the piano parts. A unison motif for pianos appears very reminiscent of Bartók before speeding on with the sampler keyboard adding a depth and texture, as do the multitude of percussion effects.

The marking Minim = 69 brings the third movement where strident pianos are crossed by sudden shafts of sound from the sampler keyboard. There are passages where there is some terrific interplay between the two pianos. The music slows towards the end, with the return of shafts of sound from the sampler keyboard.

The fourth movement, Bartók überquert den Ozean, brings a gentle piano opening with occasional sharper, percussive notes, deep bass sounds from the drums as well as depth added by the sampler keyboard. As the music moves forward, the sampler keyboard becomes increasingly dominant in a strangely intoxicating, dissonant passage. The music falls to a hushed passage for sampler keyboard before the pianos enter in sultry phrases pointed up by percussion and overlaid by the sampler keyboard. An insistent climax is eventually reached before quietening to lead to the end. This is a particularly engrossing movement that draws one in.

The sonata ends with Crotchet = 112. The pianos open this final movement with a very jazzy theme that leaps around, with drums and other percussion accompanying. There are sudden inputs for the sampler keyboard that helps drive this music on with the pace never letting up right until the end.

Regardless of the occasional debt to Bartok, this is highly original music that is often wild and remarkably intoxicating. One cannot help being drawn along by the underlying momentum or, indeed, the often magical atmosphere that is conjured up.

Eötvös’ Psalm 151 in memoriam Frank Zappa for four percussionists (1993) can actually be played by one or four percussionists. Its structure is an invocation followed by alternating verses or refrains which the composer calls ‘a ritual.’ It arose out of Eötvös’ grief and anger following the death of Frank Zappa (1940-1993), a composer he greatly admired. The instruments, seven tubular bells, two plate bells and two nipple gongs are laid out in a circle with a large drum in the middle. The percussionist plays the verses on the large drum using a variety of techniques including fingernails, mallets, sticks, wooden switches or brushes. For the refrain the percussionist goes around the circle playing, always in the same sequence, tubular bells, plate bells and nipple gongs.

Gongs open Psalm 151 before the central drum produces beats and switching noises. Tubular bells chime and gongs reply before the large drum beats a rhythm that varies in tempo and rhythm as though communicating with the other instruments. Gongs and bells chime, the combination of sounds providing an attractive harmony of sounds that rises and falls, speeds and slows. Eötvös creates a wide variety of textures, timbres and colours here as he varies the percussion instruments and the way that they are played. When the drum enters again it provides unusual pulsating sounds before a tribal beat appears, the pulsating sounds still occurring. When the bells and gongs return, slowly at first, they again provide a variety of sounds. When the large drum re-appears half way through, it is more violently yet still with some unusual sounds that always hold the ear. The drum slowly quietens before tinkling bells and gongs appear, growing more decisive with much more of their decaying resonance allowed to sound. The large drum enters again, often quite violently and accompanied by the tinkling, rattling sounds of the percussion. Towards the end tinkling bells and gongs re-appear gently then more stridently, with a variety of playing techniques before the large drum enters leading quietly to the coda.

Such is the variety of instruments and techniques used the composer always keeps the interest of the listener particularly in a performance as fine as this from the Schlagquartett Koln.

Kosmos for two pianos (1961 rev. 1999) took its name from Bartok’s large piano cycle Mikrokosmos. It is the first of Eötvös’ works to reveal his love of Bartok’s music. Also reflected in this work is the pioneering space flight by Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin that took place that year.

Kosmos brings a percussive outburst as the pianos open with an insistent motif, a rapidly repeated chord, before quietening to allow one piano to reveal a little rising motif. Soon the pianos sound out an irregular rhythmic idea, but soon revert to the opening motif before combining both motifs. The music falls to a quiet passage where the themes are gently worked over before becoming more dynamic in playing of some strength. After fading into silence the music quietly appears again but halts before a gentler theme is played in an exquisite moment. As the music rises up becoming louder, the influence of Bartók can be heard. There is a rising and falling motif for both pianos, often descending into the bass and little scattered phrases that re-appear. All the time, one is aware, often unconsciously, of a structure clearly holding this seemingly fragmented music together. Eventually a repeated figure, reminiscent of the opening chords, is developed on both pianos with occasional outbursts on the upper keyboard as the music becomes increasingly agitated. A swirling motif is heard, and then a little tune tries to appear but fades to nothing before the pianos pick out a theme, gently and quietly, then more quickly. There is some lovely interplay between these two pianists creating a fine texture. The music becomes increasingly hushed before the pianos bring back a gentle version of the repeated chord from the opening in a satisfying coda that concludes on just two notes.

This is a distinctive work that shows how Bartok’s percussive piano style can be developed further, though in a thoroughly individual way.

These pianists do a terrific job drawing out all the subtleties and colours in extremely fine performances of this extraordinary work. The recordings made between 2002 and 2010 are first class and there are excellent booklet notes.

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