Pianos with attitude

On 23 January 2023, I was fortunate to see a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London of four piano hands, those of Lucas Jussen and Arthur Jussen. The programme of the Jussen brothers comprised:

  • Mozart: Sonata in D for 2 pianos, K448 (LJ on left-side piano, AJ on right-side piano, from the audience perspective)
  • Schubert: Rondo in A, D951 (4 hands on 1 piano, LJ in upper register)
  • Ravel: La Valse (AJ on left-side piano, LJ on right-side piano)
  • Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (2-piano reduction) (LJ on left-side piano, AJ on right-side piano)
  • (Encore) Bach: Chorale from Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (4 hands on 1 piano, LJ in upper register).

Before the encore, Lucas Jussen spoke briefly from the stage to thank the audience for our applause and our attention. He called The Rite of Spring, “the greatest piece of music of the 20th Century, and perhaps the greatest of all time.” Stravinsky’s 2-piano version required, he said, intense concentration from the performers, and also from the audience. The Wigmore audience (a full house, some 550 people) had provided this concentration, and he and his brother could feel it throughout the performance. Arthur Jussen then introduced the encore, a sublime Bach chorale.

The concert overall was superb, and The Rite overpowering. This is music that starts by recalling Debussy’s Faun and goes on to anticipate Xenakis. Famously bitonal (Eb Major and E Major chords played together) and polyrhythmic – although I don’t think most of us hear multiple rhythms playing against each other; rather we hear a single, syncopated rhythm. This performance of The Rite was one of the handful of outstanding and mind-shaking classical music performances I have been lucky to experience in my life. Afterwards, in Russell’s words after meeting Conrad, “I came away bewildered and unable to find my way among ordinary affairs.”

I resolved to hear the Jussens play The Rite again. I was fortunate to catch them in Paris on 5 March 2023, at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, the hall where the first performance had taken place on 29 May 1913, causing a riot. In a hall that seats about 1900 people, perhaps 1500 people were present for the Jussens on a Sunday morning. (Only the top tier was not full.) The doors opened about 50 minutes before the scheduled time, and all present were seated by some 30 minutes before. The programme was:

  • Mozart: Sonata in D for 2 pianos, K448 (LJ on left-side piano, AJ on right-side piano)
  • Schubert: Lebenssturme Allego in A minor, D947 (4 hands on 1 piano, LJ in upper register)
  • Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (2-piano reduction) (LJ on left-side piano, AJ on right-side piano)
  • (Encore) Bach: Chorale from Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106.

Again, an earth-shattering performance which transported us. As in London, the entire performance was from memory.

Afterwards in Paris, the Jussens stood generously and patiently in the lobby for an hour signing autographs, taking selfies, and shaking hands with people. Perhaps 100 people waited patiently to meet them. How often the two must have heard the same comments, yet their smiles and enthusiasm did not flag.

Experiencing the Jussens’ forceful performance of the Stravinsky at their London concert, I finally understood why I had abandoned the piano in my twenties. THIS was the music I wanted to play, what I wanted to express through the medium of the piano. Despite the intellectual and emotional sustenance I obtain from the quietude and complexity of Bach and Mendelssohn and Chopin and Debussy and Feldman, I had really wanted to play (I suddenly realized) music that was loud, raucous, energetic, brash, provocative, and percussive. To express the thought that I had come to live out loud.

Growing up, my piano teachers were nuns, and, although intelligent and some self-confident, they were all very polite: none were loud or raucous people. The music they themselves liked and taught was sometimes complex (such as that of Bach) but always gentle, expressing a cosy domesticity, and often effete. None wished to listen to, let alone play or teach, jazz or stride piano, or Shostakovich’s preludes or fugues, or even the more bumptious Beethoven sonatas (eg, the first and last movements of Op. 2 No. 1 in F minor). I think now that these pieces involved, for them, the expression of too much emotion. Of course, in a music-school devoted to teaching keyboard instruments, we did not play orchestral or even chamber music, or even duets, but I do not recall ever playing a piano reduction of anything, except for Myra Hess’s famous Bach chorale. We could often have done, had our teachers been interested. I could never reconcile myself to what I wanted to do with and through the piano and the music that my education had led me unconsciously to associate the piano with.

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