All the selections this hour — music by Schumann, Bartok, Kurtag and Beethoven — were influenced by or written in tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach.
Our featured piano duo, the husband-and-wife team of Denes Varjon and Izabella Simon, met when tehy were students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Simon is now a guest professor at Bard College in Berlin, while her husband is an instructor at the Liszt Academy in Budapest.
Simon and Varjon begin their recital at the Beethovenfest with the first two pieces from Robert Schumann's "Six Studies in Canonical Form" for the pedal piano. In Schumann's time, pianos also existed with pedals as keys played by the feet, similar to an organ. Schumann owned a pedal piano and wrote his six studies for it, later transcribed for two pianos by Claude Debussy.
Denes Varjon greatly admires Bela Bartok, the composer of the 153 short piano pieces in the collection named "Microcosmos." Bartok set seven of them for two pianos, and we'll hear a selection from that collection.
The duo also performs music by Varjon's onetime teacher, the Hungarian composer and pianist Gyorgy Kurtag. Emulating Bartok's "Microcosmos," Kurtag wrote a number of miniature works and named them "Games" ("Jatekok"). Imagine a child playing a piano with abandon, experimenting and discovering harmonies by accident, and you'll get an idea of how this collection sounds. Also venerating Johann Sebastian Bach, Kurtag took several of Bach's chorales and transcribed them for piano-four-hands so that he could perform them together with his wife. We'll hear several pieces from "Games" by Gyorgy Kurtag interspersed with Kurtag's Bach arrangements.
Bach, the master of the fugue, is absolutely venerated by Beethoven in the "Grand Fugue" ("Große Fuge"). As if to demonstrate the universal reach of this composition, Beethoven set it in versions for string quartet, orchestra and for piano-four-hands, to be performed, in Beethoven's own words, "freely and artistically in equal measure." Not an easy task, explained Denes Varjon to DW: "Beethoven 'Grand Fugue' is nearly unplayable, but we try it. But if it were easy, we'd miss something."
Two of the Six Studies in canonical form for the pedal piano, op. 56, adapted for two pianos by Claude Debussy
Four of the Seven Pieces from Mikrokosmos, for two pianos
- Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers, from Games I
- Prelude and Choral from Games IV
- Waltz from Games II
- Hommage to Kurtág Márta, from Games III
- Angry Chorale from Games IV
- Hommage to Farkas Ferenc (2) Scraps of a colinda melody – faintly recollected
Johann Sebastian Bach/Gyorgy Kurtag
- Chorale: Out of the depths I cry to you, BWV 687
- Sonatina from God's Time is the Best of Times, BWV 106
- Chorale: O Lamb of God, Innocent, BWV deest
Ludwig van Beethoven
Große Fuge (Grand Fugue) in B-flat Major, op. 134, for piano-four-hands
Izabella Simon, piano
Denes Varjon, piano
Recorded by Radio Deutschlandfunk, Cologne (DLF) in the Grand Hotel on the Petersburg on September 16, 2018Rick Fulker