The newly-refurbished Penarth Pier Pavilion, with its twin turrets and adjacent ice-cream parlours and chip shops, is a charming venue for chamber music. Its light, airy hall has pleasantly crisp acoustics, although it could do with more sound insulation from the bustle of crowds on the pier. It makes an excellent addition to the widely-scattered performance spaces available to the annual Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Antoine Françoise (with beard) and Robin Green (without), dressed in black and solemnly bespectacled, had set up their matching pair of grand pianos nose to tail, as if hoping they might mate and produce a herd of baby grands, while Patrick King’s copper timpani gleamed promisingly to one side. The audience sat all around, with the festival’s artistic director, John Metcalf, casting a watchful eye from the back of the hall. The pianists entered with the gravity of a pair of dedicated undertakers making their way towards their black, polished coffins, but their performance was far from didactic or funereal.

© Françoise-Green Piano Duo
© Françoise-Green Piano Duo

The concert began with John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, a moto-perpetuo for two pianos. Françoise and Green dealt deftly with Adams’ motoric rhythms and elegant syncopations, which draw on ragtime and jazz as much as on ideas of minimalism. The piece is based on repetition by one piano of what has just been played on the other, with the rhythms criss-crossing and interlocking. The main rhythmical figure, based on the title word “Hallelujah”, with a stress on the “lu”, articulates all three movements. The central movement is shorter, slower and more meditative than the two outer ones, with a rippling two-against-three rhythm. The last movement has a more staccato, broken-up feeling, with dotted rhythms in place of the steady run of semiquavers in the first. It was clear from the start that Green and Françoise have learned to make their instruments chime seamlessly with one another, with matching timbres and effortless technical command. Unfortunately an electronic sensor beeped throughout, but it was switched off (to applause) by the hall technician. 

Ben Lunn, a young Cardiff-based composer, wrote The Horror and the Ecstasy based on his reading of Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil, in particular its discussion of Baudelaire. There was more Poe than Baudelaire in the outbursts of heavy forearm-work by Françoise alternating with high, filigree textures played by Green at the upper end of the keyboard. The pianists, who specialise in premiering piano pieces, often commissioned for and by themselves, made beautiful sense of both the heavier and the lighter writing, although Françoise occasionally looked surprised at the violence he was expected to inflict on the piano keyboard.

Arvo Pärt’s Hymn to a Great City is believed to refer to New York, and is a minimalist piece that uses bell-like chiming and simple chord progressions to hint at something like a Shaker hymn tune. Cascades of arpeggios embellish the tune as it is repeated. Pärt revised the piece after initially withdrawing it after its première in 1984, and released it again in 1999.

In Tom Green’s Between the Waves, written this year and premiered at this concert, an E tremolo was the principal motif. On either side of this repeated note, the piece explored both the higher and lower registers of the piano (difficult to imagine how it could do anything else) and referred to the movement of waves, appropriate for its pierhead venue. I did not feel that there was as much originality in this short work as in Lunn’s piece or Wallace’s, which was to follow.

“Hommage à Soproni”, played by four hands on one piano, is from one of the eight collections of piano pieces written by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág under the general title of Játékok (Games). These pieces form a series of diary pages, meditations and games. In “Hommage à Soproni”, which was written in memory of Kurtág’s mother, the interaction between the players seems playful in the sense of a philosophical glass-bead game rather than a playground romp. “One more voice from far away” is the second piece in the eighth book of Játékok, published in 2010, and again has the spirit of two children playing with, rather than on, a piano. It would be good to hear this duo play a full concert of the microcosmic pieces in Kurtág’s mighty work.

Françoise and Green returned to their respective instruments for Andrew Wallace’s Astral Travel, the last of the three pieces to be premiered at this concert. Again, counterpoint chased back and forth in a ping-pong-like fashion which seems appropriate for the ludic confrontation between the two players.

Finally, the mysterious presence of the timps, a thunder-sheet, an ocarina and a loud-hailer was explained when the timpanist Patrick King and euphonium player David Childs, cradling his shiny silver instrument like a much-loved baby, came on to make up a quartet with the pianists to play Richard Ayres’s No. 35 (Overture). Ayres refers to this piece as an overture for an imaginary opera. As his Peter Pan was to be given its first WNO performance that evening, interest in this piece was high and was rewarded with a spirited romp through a quixotic musical landscape, in which the thundering pianos met their match against the rattle of the timps, the elephantine trumpeting of the euphonium, and some weird sighs, gasps and moans from the loudhailer, as if Patrick King had been suddenly possessed by the ghost of Darth Vader. Great fun and a good conclusion to a thought-provoking and enjoyable lunchtime recital.