Back in the days before you could hear any orchestral piece you wanted at any time, the piano was the central instrument in home music-making. That’s the way you’d learn a Beethoven symphony, for instance – play it in a four-hand arrangement at home.
In addition to two people sitting at one piano working out the storm sequence in the Pastoral Symphony, there were any number of pieces for two pianos, partly for homes with more than the usual complement of instruments and players, and also of course for professionals looking to make a little more sonic impact.
This Sunday, pianists Mia Vassilev and Alan Mason will offer a two-piano tour of the music of France, including pieces by Bizet (his Jeux d’Enfants), Ravel (an arrangement of Boléro), Saint-Saëns (an arrangement of Danse Macabre), and Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Also on the program is the Two Pieces of Frank Martin, a Swiss composer. The concert begins at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Coral Gables.
While the Martin is a rarity, three of the other works – the Bizet, Ravel and Saint-Saëns – are well-known classics of the literature. It’s the other piece, the Milhaud, that used to be well-known but which you don’t hear much these days, at least in concert. That seems to be true of Milhaud’s music in general, though I have heard La Creation du Monde in the past couple years, if nothing else.
That’s too bad, because there’s something bright and delightful about this suite, and about Milhaud’s music in general. He drew this work from incidental music he’d written for two theater pieces, and it has the feel of good theater music: descriptive of scene and mood but not overly so, a kind of music that would underline and illustrate and be generous enough to allow the viewer to fill in some of the backstory himself or herself.
The second movement is plain and beautiful, and the third, called Brazileira, is a kitschy but lively piece with plenty of the kind of impish color that today sounds salon-like but in its day (1937) was hugely popular and considered a smart, stylish evocation of exotic South American color.
There are any number of performances by two-piano duets on YouTube, including one featuring Milhaud himself, and Sunday’s concert will provide an opportunity for listeners to get reacquainted with the music of this fine composer.
I don’t know Mason’s work, but I have heard Vassilev in concert, and she plays with strength and fleet fingers, which will be good for the Milhaud. The musicologist Richard Taruskin, writing about Milhaud and French music of the post-World War I period in his massive survey of Western music, sums it up rather nicely:
“The French music of the postwar period was a desacralized art, an art brought down to earth, a thing made pour plaire – “to please” – that is, to exist in and adorn the lives of its users.” That’s what so much two-piano music was all about to begin with, and it will be worth keeping in mind while listening to Sunday’s concert.