Over the course of the past two weeks, American pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe have given a series of concerts and events for two pianos as part of their residency in Liverpool. These two virtuosi and Juilliard school alumni have the potential to be the new young, dynamic, fresh faces of classical music. It's a costly venture to have two pianists, never mind one, so it was a rare treat to hear a double concerto live. 

Estonian conductor Anu Tali © Kabir Cardenas
Estonian conductor Anu Tali
© Kabir Cardenas

Opening the proceedings with a hop across the Atlantic to New York was Bernstein’s exciting Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. This substantial opening piece, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra filling the stage, was played with rhythmical precision throughout. The opening showed much promise with varied dynamics and interesting phrasing. As we progressed, the reading was perhaps overly precise, especially in the Latin sections which came across as slightly mechanical. Moments of pure tenderness were found in "There's A Place For Us" and the playing from both the brass and strings were strong throughout. Conductor Anu Tali was obviously revelling in the dances as she almost danced on the podium, however the performance lacked that last bit of Latin swing. 

Before their performance Roe and Anderson addressed the audience warmly. Roe described their time in Liverpool as “enriching” and the end of it “bittersweet”. She explained that they were performing Mozart’s original orchestration of the Concerto no. 10 in E flat major for two pianos and not Bernstein’s arrangement, with cadenzas by Ernst von Dohnányi. The balance of the two pianos and orchestra was aptly managed, but throughout the concerto the playing of the strings was perhaps too heavy-handed and lacking in subtle dynamic shading. The sibling rivalry that Mozart and his sister exhibited in this concerto was evident here too. Roe stated that they would be taking on the traditional gender roles, where she played Nannerl’s part and Anderson her brother’s. The tone of the two pianists was complementary: Roe’s was bright and clear whilst Anderson’s was warm and rich. The whole piece felt very well-rehearsed, however it lacked risk, sparkle and spontaneity, which is perhaps indicative of an interpretation in its infancy. 

Their dazzling encore, sending us back to New York, was their own entertaining and high spirited arrangement of "America" from West Side Story, and it was full of wit and bravura. Not only did they use the piano in the conventional way, but they also added in some carefully choreographed percussion sounds using the piano as a soundbox. Swapping places on the piano stool numerous times, this capricious version of the song showed their sense of musical fun as well as their obvious gleeful virtuosity. 

Having been on a transatlantic journey followed by a return trip to New York, the second half of the concert transported us to the Baltic, with music steeped in the folk melodies, rhythms and expansive landscapes of eastern Scandinavia. Before plunging into the grandeur of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 in E flat major, Eduard Tubin’s Estonian Dance Suite opened the second half. Taking us to Tali’s homeland, the Tubin starts with a violin solo, played convincingly and ably by leader Zoe Beyers. This bright movement echoes the folk-inspired music of Vaughan Williams along with a hint of a composer he greatly admired, Sibelius. The slower second movement had a lyrical and melodic phrase which was passed through the orchestra. In this virtual musical conversation, each player shaped the phrase convincingly before continuing on to the next. The final movement with its Stravinskian rhythmic drive brought the suite to a vivacious close.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony was as a grand and majestic reading as one might expect. Tali was authentic to the score throughout and tempi were textbook in all three movements. She highlighted the articulation, bringing out refreshing details one normally doesn’t hear in every movement. The second movement felt exceptionally folksy. The finale with its well-judged "swan theme" was handled securely. The sound grew in a richness, with an increasingly grounding bass sonority in which the double basses revelled in their parts.