Recitals featuring two pianos are something of a rarity due to the expense and logistics of hefting two full-size concert grands on stage – but a recital featuring seven leading pianists active in the UK today is even more unusual. But the London Piano Festival pulled off such a feat at its Two Piano Gala on Saturday night at Kings Place, the highlight of a splendid weekend of concerts.

Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

In their introduction to the Festival, and indeed this concert, directors Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen emphasized that for the inaugural edition of the festival, they had invited artists whom they know personally. The nature of the professional pianist’s life tends towards the solitary and so the two-piano gala was a way of bringing together pianist friends and colleagues in a celebration of musical collaboration and friendship. The warm atmosphere was evident throughout and there was very much a feeling of music with friends, amongst friends and for friends. The range of performers and repertoire was almost an embarrassment of riches, playing a wide varety of repertoire. And there was even room for the world première of a new work for two pianos by American composer Nico Muhly, who was present at the performance. With such a big programme, this was a long concert, but the organization of the programme and variety of performers ensued there were no longeurs, and as the evening moved towards its close, the music became increasingly lighthearted.

The concert opened with Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica, a virtuosic showpiece on a grand scale, which was deftly handled by Martin Roscoe and Ronan O’Hora. The cooperation between the two pianists was evident throughout, with clear voicing and the sense of a mighty structure being built before us. The work had a mysterious, processional majesty which made for an impressive start to the evening.

After Busoni came Debussy, performed by Stephen Kovacevich and Charles Owen. The first work, Lindaraja, took us very firmly to Andalucia and the Alhambra palace in Granada with its atmospheric strummed motifs and crisp habanera rhythms. The two-piano transcription of Prélude à l’apres midi d’un faune was limpid, richly hued and elegantly paced.

After the first interval, the sensuous and erotic came to the fore in the Rachmaninov’s Suite no. 1 to which Apekisheva and Owen brought a magical liquidity of sound, especially in the filigree textures of the Barcarolle and La nuit… L’amour, while the final movement rang with the joyous sound of Easter bells. This was, for me, one of the highlights of the evening, memorable for close rapport between the pianists (they are regular duo partners) and the luminous, evocative soundworld they created.

This was followed by La Valse, Ravel’s swirling portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a work rich in decadence and extravagant climactic Straussian episodes which O’Hora and Ashley Wass pulled off with energetic bravura, highlighting the works underlying sinister darkness, as well as its breathless eroticism.

Muhly’s Fast Patterns opened the third part of the concert. The first piece Muhly has written for two pianos, the work is a toccata-like “obsessive perpetuum mobile where there is no obvious, climax, rather like in the Bach Partitas” (Nico Muhly). The two piano parts are used to create an antiphonal effect that was evident throughout the piece, and the overall result was of a witty, sparkling tennis match with its constantly changing metre. It provided an interesting musical bridge between the shimmering Rachmaninov and what followed, Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, an exuberant, eccentric and light-hearted work strongly influenced by Brazilian music. The title is that of an old Brazilian tango and the work fuses popular melodies, tangos, sambas and even a Portuguese fado interspersed with a recurring rondo-like theme. Wass and Apekisheva made light of the work’s brash sonorities to create a performance which glittered with musical colour and music-hall humour.

Kathryn Stott joined Wass for three tangos by Piazzolla, sumptuous, melancholy and poignant, while Roscoe returned to join Stott in Grainger’s Fantasy on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which offers the listener a 20-minute précis of the entire opera. It was played with warmth and affection.

This was a remarkable evening of exceptionally fine pianism and inventive programming, hugely enjoyable and highly engaging. It sets the bar high for next year’s London Piano Festival, which already promises to be another feast of pianistic wonders, with a special focus on Russian piano music.