When I was seven or eight years old, my parents took me to my first classical music concert. At the time, we lived on a remote island connected to a larger island by an embankment. The larger island was connected to the mainland by a bridge. Now I’m telling you all this because it took us almost two hours to get to the concert on the mainland and of course, another two hours to traipse back home. It was worth it, because where we lived, classical concerts were a rarity. The concert was an end-of-the-pier affair given by the then-famous piano duo, Rawicz and Landauer, known for their performances of popular classics. They achieved considerable acclaim in Britain in the fifties and sixties, especially for the precision of their ensemble playing. Before the concert, I was given strict instructions by my father to applaud only when he did and not to make any sudden movements in case it distracted the pianists, for we were sitting in the front row. My favourite piece of the evening was the lively waltz from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin which – I can still remember – was played with tremendous panache. I sang the tune most of the way home, much no doubt to my parents’ irritation.
There are two kinds of piano duet, those in which the two pianists have an instrument to themselves and those that require the players share one piano. The second type, known sometimes as “four-hand piano duets” are far more prevalent. The young Mozart wrote pieces of this sort for himself and his sister to play but at the time, the range of the piano keyboard was only about five octaves and barely adequate for two adult players.
As keyboards became extended, so did the popularity of four-hand piano duets, particularly during the second half of the 19th century. Almost every important orchestral work was arranged and published in this form. Decades before the advent of radio, four-hand piano duet arrangements brought orchestral works into your home, assuming of course that you had a piano and two people who could play it. One of my friends still enjoys playing Haydn symphonies with his wife, on their piano in their living room.
Lucas & Arthur Jussen (YUH-sun) are two immensely talented brothers from Hilversum in Holland who have been impressing audiences worldwide with their brilliant piano duet performances. Lucas (b. 1993) and Arthur (b. 1996) come from a musical family and have been performing in public since early childhood. They’ve already given concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and with the symphony orchestras of Montréal, Sydney, Singapore and Shanghai.
When this work was written in 1828, Schubert knew that death was imminent. Six years earlier at the age of twenty-five, he was diagnosed with syphilis, which in those days was fatal. Not surprisingly, he felt depression and despair and these emotions come through vividly in this work. Schubert began to write it in January 1828, finished it in March and gave its first performance in May. He died the following November. And I’m sorry if you find this all a bit gloomy and distressing, but that’s how it is.
Musicologist Christopher Gibbs has described Schubert’s Fantasia as, “among his greatest and most original” compositions for piano duet. And what extraordinary music it is! There are four movements which are linked musically and played without a break. Sometimes there are hints of Hungarian folksong, such as the plaintive melody at the beginning which gradually grows in intensity. The second movement (05:39) is powerful and dramatic and leads into a graceful, exquisite tune. The scampering melody of the third movement (08:06) leads into the brilliant finale (12:18) which returns to the wistful mood of the beginning before transitioning into a rich and powerful fugue (13:51), a type of composition normally associated with earlier times. The tension in this movement is remarkable and it leads to a quiet close which seems to seal the end to a tragedy.
These two extraordinary young musicians literally play as one, everything is beautifully matched: the phrasing, the dynamics, the interpretation and the articulation. They seem to think as one and even their natural gestures while playing are almost the same. Perhaps most important, Lucas and Arthur appear to sense the tragedy and anguish in the music: just listen to the way they highlight the drama of the second movement. The ensemble playing is also captivating: notably their brilliant articulation (around 11:45 onwards) in the third movement. This a compelling and moving performance of one of Shubert’s most expressive and profound works.