For many pianists, the only experience of playing in a two-piano ensemble might be while rehearsing and performing a concerto in a conservatory setting. Outside that setting, there’s a limited availability of venues with two performance-ready pianos, unless you’re touring professionally. And I doubt that the average dueling-piano bar would be open to an evening of hardcore two-piano repertoire.
When you’re fortunate enough to hear a two-piano recital, it’s almost always memorable. Two pianos can be even more kaleidoscopic than piano duets, because there are no restrictions on which notes can be played simultaneously, and pianists don’t have to reach around each other. It’s notable that many reductions of orchestral works are for two pianos; it seems like the ideal medium to represent orchestral textures. There’s a tendency in this literature toward bombast, but also interesting experiments in rhythm and sonority, as you’ll see in my list. To clarify, I limited my choices to pieces specifically written for this instrumentation, excluding transcriptions and concertos for two pianos.
10. György Ligeti: Three Pieces for Two Pianos
Listening to Ligeti’s music can be like staring into an abyss or watching a barber pole, as he creates textures that approach different kinds of infinity. This piece for two pianos is primarily a rhythmic experiment. It is unabashedly abstract, as indifferent as the cosmos.
I. Monument. Strangely groovy. A conflict between pitches A and Gb between pianos is the foundation and other objects float in the middle. Gradually the texture increases in density, and a sort of abstract scene comes into view. It all sounds very hard to coordinate.
II. Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (with Chopin in the background). A tour de force of swirling notes. It includes many “phasing” procedures, nodding to composers Reich and Riley in the title.
III. In a Gentle Flowing Movement. Another infinite texture, recalling some of Ligeti’s own etudes, slowly gathering into utmost density, ending in an icy chorale.
Sheet music: Schott
9. Benjamin Britten: Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca
What a treat to hear this played by Sviatoslav Richter and Britten himself (even with some rough patches). Britten gives us a stately, declamatory introduction. It works well as an introduction specifically; we feel that the tense energy is all leading to something, ready to explode. Ever the master of form, Britten moves on to the next section at just the right time. The rondo begins quietly, with leaping gestures that remind me of Shostakovich. Somewhere down the line, an amazing fast-paced canon tests the coordination of the performers. Britten keeps the textures lean, letting the dissonant counterpoint sparkle.
Sheet music: Boosey & Hawkes
8. Philip Glass: Four Movements for Two Pianos
Quite honestly, the first movement alone makes this piece worthwhile. The first time I heard it was while turning pages for a performance at a house concert. It blew me away. The harmonies are more interesting than usual for Philip Glass, and the pure excitement adds up to a sort of action movie for two pianos. Some of it reminds me of Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks, but in this case that’s no fault at all.
The second movement is equal parts minimalist melancholy and Classical formality. It ends up being quite hopeful and reassuring.
The third has a nice churning energy, like a timelapse of construction on a building. Glass’s ubiquitous 3-on-2 rhythms toward the end get a little tiresome, though.
The fourth movement almost kills the piece. It sounds like a rehash of material, and reaches bombastic, almost amateurish heights. I think Glass just wanted some kind of high-energy finale and was running out of time.
Sheet music: Dunvagen/Chester Music
7. Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Two Pianos
There’s a quote from Poulenc about how he wrote for the pleasure of audiences, and I do delight in all the fleeting bonbons of sound in this piece. He’ll swerve into a teasing harmonic alley and then lurch back into some Neoclassical construction, always moving forward. Poulenc also used a lot of pedal, and thought there could never be enough. Here, with two pianos at his disposal, he’s able to add extra clarity, even with a huge wash of pedal. There’s some really cool use of imitation throughout the piece, and huge sonorities at times.
I. Prologue. Stern and dramatic, with a tender B theme.
II. Allegro molto. More Neoclassical and bustling, with echoes of Prokofiev and Mozart. The ominous slow build in the B section reminds me of The Rite of Spring.
III. Andante lyrico. Set in a warm C-sharp major, with measured counterpoint. It reaches a serene, hopeful climax.
IV. Epilogue. Allegro giocoso. A whirlwind of activity, with a return of the first movement’s slow theme.
Sheet music: Durand
6. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Suite No. 2, Op. 17
Rachmaninoff generates incredible textures for two pianos in this delightful suite. This is a true virtuoso letting loose, and the music demands utmost technique from both players. Often while one piano sings a melody, the other piano gets some of the most challenging material as accompaniment. No one gets a break!
I. Introduction. It must be taxing to play these sustained sections of fast, large chords, but there’s a great celebratory mood, and the long melancholy coda is signature Rachmaninoff.
II. Waltz. “Breathless” is the best word to describe this one. It sweeps you along, aims to dazzle, and succeeds. Along the way it dips into byways of sighing romantic tunes.
III. Romance. By this point it’s clear that Rachmaninoff is enhancing these salon pieces, really giving them some extra compositional care and injecting more counterpoint that’s possible with a two-piano texture. It’s easy to get lost in this movement, and it’s a nice place to stay.
IV. Tarantella. Dark and intense, with some nightmarish repeated-note sections. At the climaxes you can really revel in the orchestral effects.
Sheet music: Boosey & Hawkes
Stay tuned for #5-#1…