Pianists Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva presented a lively recital programme in what might be better described as ‘an orchestral concert for two pianos’; such was the range of sounds the two were able to conjure from their instruments.

Kerry Ghais
Kerry Ghais

Milhaud’s Scaramouche Suite was a frothy, joyful opener, as one might expect from a member of ‘Les Six’ in a work based on theatrical music. The stomping samba rhythms of the finale were delivered with great aplomb by the ever-exuberant Apekisheva. It was a pleasure to see the musicians clearly enjoying themselves throughout.

The melancholic Suite No. 1 revealed Rachmaninov at his most elegiac. The dark colours of the opening were punctuated by nimble-fingered trills, while later, majestic themes ascending in sequence carried echoes of the sweeping melodies of the Second Piano Concerto and Second Symphony. The third movement, subtitled Les Larmes (Tears), was built upon a single repeated melodic figure which gradually grew in intensity against a background of shifting kaleidoscopic patterns. This minimalist approach continued into the final movement, where the chiming of Russian Easter bells provided a rhythmic ostinato. Here the composer wavered, alternating between major and minor tonalities as if unable to decide, before finally settling on the prevailing darkness.

Ravel’s La Valse balanced the easy lilt of the waltz theme with more demonic interludes. The rapid flourishes were delivered with consummate ease, including an exciting double-glissando played on black and white notes simultaneously. Despite the complexity of the texture, the performers maintained a sparkling transparency that belied the challenging nature of the work. The risk when performing a programme on two concert Steinways is that the sound becomes too overpowering and monotonous, but Owen and Apekisheva managed to avoid this throughout with a sensitive and imaginative performance.

The pianists moved onto one piano for the second half of the recital, carefully negotiating the closely-spaced writing. I was fascinated to hear how Stravinsky’s Le Sacre might be realised for the piano, and the composer’s own version did not disappoint. The key point here is not that the piece has been arranged for piano, but rather that the piano is a vehicle for a multitude of orchestral effects. In fact, the work was originally published in this duet form before later being orchestrated, suggesting that The Rite has a much greater versatility than previously imagined. The famous repeated chords with irregular accents were performed with a focused intensity that was never too harsh-sounding.

It is a testament to the sheer range of sounds that the performers were able to produce that, particularly for those of us in the audience who were familiar with the piece, what we were hearing was not just the sound of the piano, but how these masters of mimicry were able to suggest a whole range of instrumental colours.

Owen leapt to his feet for the final flourish before the two concluded with an encore from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, where the ringing sounds of Javanese gamelan finished with a pentatonic brightness.