Top 10 Pieces for 2 Pianos: #5-#1

5. Witold Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 might be the most popular theme-and-variation subject of all time. I mean, look at how many composers have done something with it. It does easily lend itself to variation; the predictable harmonic movement by fourths is sort of a blank canvas to fill with whatever procedures a composer can think of. The most famous set is probably Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but Lutoslawski’s contribution here feels like the ultimate statement on this well-worn theme. Instead of presenting an unadorned version of the theme, he starts right away with a reharmonized version with some undercurrents of mischief. Ingeniously, the variations go on to trace the exact contours of Paganini’s original set of 11 variations, but reharmonized and with all manner of piano hijinks in the background. Some of the sequences of fourths and fifths as running 16th notes sound hellishly difficult. After cruising through all 11 variations, Lutoslawski offers a nice grand climactic statement of the theme to bring it all to a close. It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and masterfully engineered by a great composer still early in his career.
Sheet music: Chester Music

4. John Adams: Hallelujah Junction

Out near the Nevada-California border, at the intersection of routes 295 and 40, sits a small truck stop called Hallelujah Junction. Composer John Adams was inspired enough by the name to write a piece. In his words: “Here we have a case of a great title looking for a piece. So now the piece finally exists: the ‘junction’ being the interlocking style of two-piano writing which features short, highly rhythmicized motives bouncing back and forth between the two pianos in tightly phased sequences.” In an added touch of wit, the rhythmic gestures tossed around by the two pianos often mirror the common speech rhythm of the word “Hal-le-LU-jah” (with that emphasis).

This is the only piece on this list that I’ve had first-hand experience playing with another pianist. It’s a true rhythmic workout, with absolute in-sync playing required to get from beginning to end. The first movement feels like embarking on a great road trip, with “le-LU-jah” fragments acting as constant fanfares. The mood is optimistic and full of wide open spaces, much like the American West. Thanks to Adams’s skillful transitions, the music seamlessly moves to new textures, new scenes. In the second movement, a more restrained mood evokes waves cresting along the California coast, until a light rainfall of staccato notes serves as a transition into the finale. Here the rain turns to thunder, and some 6/8 rhythms rock out for a while. The big moment of arrival puts the full “Ha-le-LU-jah” motive front and center over an oom-pah bass, and the two pianos clash in a variety of garish dissonances until the coda.
Sheet music: Boosey & Hawkes

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448

238 years after its composition, this piece is still a classic of two-piano repertoire. Mozart’s delight in writing it is palpable. Some of the textures are clearly impossible to play on one piano, so we get the kaleidoscopic effect of Mozart-on-two-pianos. There’s a particular quality in this music that has actually been shown to enhance brain function – something about the listener’s brain parsing the large chunks of musical data passed around between the players. Aside from the scientific aspects, it’s simply great music. The first movement exposition is so spirited, so full of fun, that I couldn’t wait to hear it repeat on first listening. There’s a moment that’s downright funny, when Mozart writes a staggered sequence of big D major chords, but has the pianists alternate in playing it. Hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you hear it. The Andante is impeccable, and the finale has plenty of fun energy left.
Sheet music: Schirmer | Henle | Music Minus One

2. Charles Ives: Three Quarter-Tone Pieces

I love this piece. It shows Charles Ives’s sensitive ear and imagination, and forms an important and compelling experiment in microtones with some effects that could only be achieved with two pianos. I’ve heard instances in Ives’s other works where he tries to imitate out-of-tune pianos playing ragtime, or built up dissonant chords so that the beating frequencies were audible. But here he actually calls for one piano to be tuned a quarter-tone sharp (most performances instead tune one of the pianos down a quarter-tone). There will still be listeners who can’t stomach the foreign sounds, but if you give it a chance, you’ll hear the unique beauty of microtones in providing an extra color even in a fairly tonal context. The first movement, a dolorous Largo, conjurs up the sensation of walking through a musty old house. You can almost smell the old bound books. Ives’s textures are fairly restrained, with the detuned piano sometimes just providing a few quiet sour notes to spice up an otherwise normal-sounding chord. In one moment that made my jaw drop the first time I heard it, Ives gives the pianos alternating notes in a chromatic scale, and it sounds like a real slide that would never be possible on keyboard instruments. The second movement is a classic Ivesian scherzo, with ragtime-y syncopation and even more microtonal chromatic runs. When he states a phrase in one piano, then repeats it in another, there’s a real spatial effect. The pianos are speaking to each other from different rooms, or even different dimensions. In the third movement, a chorale slowly builds to a climax that lets the microtonal harmonies sparkle. Charles Ives was quoted as saying “Vagueness is at times an indication of nearness to a perfect truth.” If that’s the case, then this piece is one of the truest expressions of this philosophy, as Ives uncovers mysteries hidden in the microtonal cracks, and the wonderful ambiguities of these harmonies lead us to introspection.
Sheet music: Peters

1. Olivier Messiaen – Visions de l’Amen

It’s almost impossible to talk about Messiaen’s music without mentioning his Catholic faith. Most of his works contain overarching programmatic elements related to religious topics, and the Catholic DNA goes as deep as moment-to-moment motives that may symbolize God, angels, Jesus’s suffering, or something else. Even as a lapsed Christian, I find Messiaen’s sacred classical music extremely compelling. He frequently creates time-stopping devotional states and tries to evoke the utopian eternity of heaven itself. He is also not afraid of dissonance and downright ugliness, and this aspect may turn off some listeners. He wades into myriad harmonic possibilities to paint the great mysteries of faith. His seven-movement piece for two pianos, Visions de l’Amen, is not only the most epic piece I’ve heard for this instrumentation, but also a unique spiritual meditation on the multi-faceted, eternal “amen” that encompasses God’s creation, the sacrifice of Jesus, the never-ending celebration in heaven, and more. Heady enough yet? Here we go. The links I’ve included are from an astonishing performance from memory by sister duo Christina and Michelle Naughton.

I. Amen de la Création (Amen of Creation). There’s a long tradition of classical works starting in some kind of primordial stew, springing from nothing. Here, though, Messiaen is evoking the moment of creation itself. A chordal motive deep in the second piano is the “God theme” that will appear in many guises over the rest of the piece, while the first piano seems to be the Spirit hovering over the waters. Messiaen sets these more dissonant chords in staggered, non-retrogradeable rhythms (aka palindromic rhythms, identical played forward or backward, to represent a quality of eternity). The music slowly develops into a grand edifice of sound, with cascades of tonal triads bubbling up in the second piano. A shiver-inducing start to the journey.

II. Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau (Amen of stars, of the ringed planet). This movement introduces a bass line that frankly could work in a metal song, then moves to wild active textures in both pianos. There’s a maximalist element to both the density and the technical demands in this movement. Based on the title, I would assumed something more spare and “spacey,” but I like Messiaen’s choice to overwhelm with content instead.

III. Amen de l’agonie de Jésus (Amen of Jesus’s agony). As a final project for a Formal Analysis class in grad school, I studied this movement, which I considered the most ugly and impenetrable. I came away with a new appreciation for both the emotional and technical elements. The opening gesture of three chords in Piano I, rebounding in Piano II, may symbolize Jesus’s three nails being hammered in on the cross. A later section features a plaintive theme in Piano II, while Piano I hovers in the stratosphere with material that recalls the Creation motives of the first movement. Messiaen is tying the larger vision together. The third notable feature of the movement is a section marked douloureux, en pleurant. Claustrophobic and full of bitter accents, this seems to be the depiction of pure, cosmic suffering.

IV. Amen du Désir (Amen of desire). After the intense misery of the last movement, we reach an oasis. This is one of Messiaen’s greatest time-suspending movements, and the highlight of this piece. A long-breathed chordal melody leads to an extended solo for Piano II, with more passionate declarations and big tonal moments of release in F major and then E-flat major. Piano I returns to provide dripping accompaniment over a restatement of the opening melody. The second ascent to the climax is positively ecstatic. I had the privilege of hearing this piece live, and this moment in the performance was electric.

V. Amen des Anges, des Saints, du chant des oiseaux (Amen of angels, of saints, and of bird songs). A joyful collage of birdsongs (a preoccupation of Messiaen), non-retrogradebale rhythms, chant-like melodies, and various mixed-meter constructions. A recurring “theme of the Saints” which is sort of a transformation of the God theme, alternating A major and E-flat major key areas. Take note of this one; it will appear again in the finale.

VI. Amen du Jugement (Amen of judgment). Short and straightforward, this features a repeated stern gesture that represents, according to Messiaen, God saying “Accursed, withdraw from me!”

VII. Amen de la Consommation (Amen of consummation). Pure triumph. Piano I floats along with some of the same non-retrogradeable rhythms from the Creation movement, with Piano II singing out a strong chorale like tolling bells. The triumphant mood grows until Piano I is blinding us with huge chords in rapid sixteenths. In the final moments, the music sweeps us away, ending on a giant, emphatic A major cadence.

In the same way that Mahler said a symphony should contain the whole world, Messiaen tried to imbue this piece with a total understanding of the faith. It’s as profound and spiritually honest as a good sermon, and as musically significant as the best piano repertoire of the twentieth century.

Sheet music: Durand

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