A piano, four hands, too good!

Edward and Stephanie Neeman. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Music / “Neeman Piano Duo in concert”. At Larry Sitsky Recital Room, ANU, August 9. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

PIANO compositions run the gamut of musical styles, but when it’s piano four hands and almost all the music has been arranged, the piano can perform orchestral, choral and other forms.

In the second concert of this mini piano festival organized by the ANU School of Music, the husband and wife team of Stephanie and Edward Neeman began with “Sheep May Safely Graze”, by JS Bach, arranged by Edward Neeman.

This aria, from cantata BWV 208 with both performers at the same piano, sounded as clean and clear as this reviewer has ever heard. With a slightly contemporary twist, the distinctive melody had pops of color in the treble that made it look cinematic. The playing was, of course, as good as it got from this husband and wife team of top quality musicians.

Beethoven’s “Variation on a Theme by Count Waldstein”, written in 1792, was again arranged by Edward, as were all the pieces performed in this mini festival except one.

These seven short variations have a grand finale as a finish. It’s a classic example of how to write music and keep writing it based on a theme. It ranges from simple to complex. The timing exhibited by both players was clock-like, which perfectly captured the scaly passages and melodious melody.

The “Suite in the form of waltzes”, by Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937), in five movements, is a major musical treat. Besides the dance beats, it sounded Russian, French and delightfully lyrical. Although there is orchestral accompaniment in this suite, it worked perfectly as chamber music. Both players seamlessly adapted to each new style of dance track. It was beautiful music, beautifully played.

This duo is familiar with each other’s performance styles. Their facial communication with each other is not just for musical expression, but it’s also affectionate. Their timing is so consistent that from the back of the room, their synchronized breathing could be heard and even their flair was perfectly in sync. The “Pas de deux” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” came next.

Originally written for two pianos, but arranged for four hands by Edward, “Andante et Scherzettino”, by Cécile Charminade, is a short, melodious but not emotional work. It contained powerful themes and a flowing style that captured a steady marching rhythm before launching into a sprint into the Scherzettino.

Samuel Barber’s “Canzone” from his “Piano Concerto” begins as a wandering melody, then becomes menacing and slightly ominous. The melody remains below, but all around it is a confused expression that takes over. That said, it was still a beautiful, expressive piece of work and the acting was just perfect.

“Serpent’s Kiss”, by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938), is a rendition of the biblical story of the serpent tempting Eve. It was extremely comedic and intentionally over-dramatic. There were even kicks among his smashing chords. The players chased each other around the keyboard. It got into vaudevillian territory and had touches of “Ragtime”. Then Stephanie got up and tapped out a beat on the piano while Edward accompanied her then joined in the tapping. It could have been the soundtrack to a Keystone Cops movie. It was played with all the animation effect the two could muster. Both whistled a comical tune at the end.

You would have thought few could top that. But an encore where they played on each other’s hands with fast, loud music made “L’chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof” one of the most stunning encores.

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Ian Meikle, editor