Two heads are better than one, as the old saying goes. When it comes to the piano, four hands are sometimes better than two. So it is with the Geister Duo, a fast-rising set of partners who have steadily climbed the competition ranks in recent years. In September 2021, they claimed the top prize for piano duo at the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, cementing an already solid reputation as one of Europe’s most exciting performance pairs.

Geister Duo
© Daniel Delang

Both natives of Paris, David Salmon and Manuel Vieillard met as students at the CRR de Paris, and both came to music from similar backgrounds. “My father bought a Clavinova when I was very young, because he is a musician and he wanted to make some fun,” Salmon told me during a joint Zoom interview. “I remember that I was playing by ear some pieces that I was listening to, very simple pieces. From there, it just grew until I was in the conservatory.”

Vieillard’s musical journey began in a similarly humble fashion in the family home. “I had a very, very old piano, and since I was three years old, I was on the piano,” he said, as he mimed striking the keys like a young child would. “My parents noticed I was very into it, so I started going to a little school in my neighborhood for ten years. I entered the conservatory at seventeen, which is pretty late, and afterward, it felt natural to continue on this path. I ask myself about my choices, but I think it was obvious that I was going to do this.”

The twosome both studied solo piano after their initial training, with Vieillard taking a degree from the Hochschule Hanns Eisler in Berlin and Salmon matriculating through the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris. Yet they also found themselves drawn to collaboration. Their bond was forged through shared musical ideals and an easy, friendly rapport that was evident throughout our interview, where one often picked up on a point the other was making.

“We met on a train going to an academy in the South of France, and we became friends this way,” Salmon said. “We found that we had a lot of the same views about music, about pianists. We loved the same composers, the same interpretations. It felt natural for us to start to play together.”

Although the pair hit it off immediately, they acknowledged the differences inherent in a collaborative performance. “As a duo, you have to understand that you don’t have your own space at the piano – especially in four-hand piano,” Salmon said. “We are very close, and there is not much space between us. We have to understand that first of all, because it’s very different from how you perform as a solo player. We have to take care of each other, make sure we are in tune with each other. Otherwise it is very complicated and we’re bothering each other.

“We are a team,” he continued. “That is a very big difference for the ego. You have to consider everything from the perspective of a team, and as part of a bigger plan.”

Based on their early success, it could be said they function as a dream team. In 2019, they took home second prize in the piano duet category at the International Schubert Competition in the Czech Republic, which they followed up by winning top honors at the 7th International Four-Handed Piano Competition in Monaco.

Their ARD win, however, is arguably their highest profile accomplishment to date. 

In the qualifying and semi-final rounds, their repertoire spanned from Bach and Brahms to Schubert and Stravinsky, with detours into the worlds of Max Reger and contemporary composer Vassos Nicolaou. Facing off against three sets of competitors in the final round, they executed Mozart’s Concerto no. 10 in E flat for two pianos, K365 with finesse and sensitivity to their partnership, as well as their collaboration with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Although the pandemic has been a scourge to many early career musicians, Vieillard and Salmon found that the focus and time offered by isolation and quarantine helped them prepare for the competition. “We knew the actual program of the competition for about one year, so we started practicing very diligently in November,” Vieillard said. “With Covid, it was quite convenient, because we could really devote ourselves to preparing the pieces. After the lockdown and all, we had a lot of concerts without the same program, until three weeks before the competition. For the three weeks, we just worked like crazy.”

Salmon appreciated the diversity of the competition program. As artists, he said, “we have to have a large repertoire in terms of history, going from Bach to contemporary music. It’s very enjoyable for us, because we can enjoy the different elements of playing with four hands. Preparing to play with the orchestra was a very big thing too.”

Although the duo felt well prepared going into the finals, hearing their names called as the winners still came as a shock and a thrill. “We were full of joy,” Vieillard said. “At first, you almost don’t realize it. What was very, very strange was to wait in the director’s room just before. They told us they would first announce third prize, then second prize, then first prizes. We were in the room thinking, ‘Ah! Don’t call me first!’ You see people going onstage before you, and in the end, you realize you’re alone in the room. This is a big moment. We are in the clouds.

“It was a relief too,” he continued. “Finally, we have the results. Finally, the competition is over. This is the moment we waited for so long. It was so nice.”

The entire ARD experience was rewarding and challenging, according to Salmon. He would heartily recommend it to any other young duos navigating the competition circuit. “Don’t hesitate to go,” he said. “For organization and everything, it was perfect. We really felt like we were there to perform. But be prepared if you do go, because it is a big undertaking. It’s a huge program, a lot of rounds.”

“And you get more and more tired after every round,” Vieillard interjected. “After the first round, you get relief for one day, and then there’s another round. You are going to feel tired. You need to learn how to manage this aspect of the experience, both as a psychological thing and a physical thing.”

ARD Competition semi final: pep talk from Munich Chamber Orchestra's concertmaster Daniel Giglberger
© Daniel Delang

With the competition behind them, the duo plan to focus on a series of concert engagements throughout Europe this fall. Their schedule takes them to several points throughout France, as well as to an engagement with the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, playing Bach’s Concerto for two pianos in C minor. They will also spend some time putting the finishing touches on their debut album, a selection of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák. The record’s programming holds a personal connection too.

“We are playing Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Schumann, and Schumann is the reason why we are called the Geister Duo,” Vieillard explained. “We named ourselves after the set called Geistervariationen by Schumann, which is a piece that we love so much. It probably surprises some people that a French duo would have a German name.”

Probably. But as the short but successful career that Vieillard and Salmon have already forged shows, the surprises are always pleasant ones – and they surely have many more in store.

This article was sponsored by the ARD International Music Competition