Many hands make light work, but where Italian pianists Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti are concerned, their four hands also make compellingly beautiful music.
This talented young Italian duo, touring South Africa in July, are offering the sparkling programme ‘Fantasy and Imagination’ of works by Mozart, Schubert, Rachmaninov and Samuel Barber. Audiences in the Western and Eastern Cape and in Gauteng can enjoy the unusual experience of a ‘four hands’ concert. Potchefstroom, in the Northwest Province, will have the opportunity, though, to be treated to a performance on two pianos with which the Italian Duo will conclude their debut tour.
Since forming their partnership in 2013 Spina and Benignetti have garnered many international prizes both as a duo and as soloists. As early as June 2014 they obtained a unanimous and prestigious Diplôme Supérieur d’Exécution at the Paris Ecole Normale de Musique.
Both are graduates of important European music institutions in Paris, Rotterdam, Graz, Bologna, and Novara, where several renowned professors influenced the interpretation of their repertoire. Michele and Eleonora are currently studying at the Hochschule fur Musik in Graz (Austria) under Professors Gil Garburg and Sivan Silver. In their own right, they both teach at the Saint Quentin and Soissons Conservatories, as well as at the Summer International Academy of Colombes in Paris.
Their recording of Brahms’s complete works for two pianos (Brilliant Classics Records, 2015) has been praised highly by audiences, critics and popular classical music magazines in Italy and France. Their latest album, Lifetime (the Sheva Collection) was released in January 2017.
South African audiences will be able to enjoy one of Mozart’s last colourful works, Fantasia K 608 in F minor; Rachmaninov’s Six Pieces op. 11, full of emotive power and variations; Schubert’s Fantasia D 940 in F minor in four connected movements and Barber’s Suite op. 28, evoking cherished memories of New York.
Their recent YouTube recording at Izumi Hall, Osaka, Japan in May 2017 may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnvlriW4-mg&feature=youtu.be
Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti are two compelling, talented young musicians that come from strong and varied backgrounds as soloist and chamber musicians.
Their acclaimed recording of Brahms’s complete works for two pianos for Brilliant Classics Records (2015) has been praised by audiences and critics alike: the most popular classical music magazines in Italy and France (Amadeus, Musica, Suonare News, Le Pianiste…) awarded this recording with the highest rating in 2015. The Italian critic Luca Segalla says: “…Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti, with utmost care and attention to sound, precisely execute the contrapuntal game of variation no. 4, carving out a finale which makes one feel as if he’s listening to an orchestra…” (Luca Segalla for “Musica” Magazine, September 2015). The latest album, “Lifetime” on the Sheva Collection’s label has been released in January 2017.
Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti’s partnership as a piano duo began in 2013 and immediately received positive acclaim. In June 2014 they obtained the prestigious “Diplôme Supérieur d’Exécution” at the Ecole Normale de Musique “Alfred Cortot” in Paris, with the mention “à l’unanimité”. They won many international prizes in competition including First Prize Pietro Argento Competition, Best Chamber Music Performance Award of the London Piano Masters at the Royal College of Music in London, First Prize and Brahms Special Prize at the Virtuoso Grand Prize, First Prize A.M.A. Calabria International Competition and First Prize Concours Musical de France.
Both musicians graduated from some of the most important European music institutions such as the Ecole Normale de Musique “A. Cortot” in Paris, Codarts University of Performing Arts in Rotterdam, Hochschule fur Musik in Graz, the Conservatory of Music “G. B. Martini” in Bologna, and the Conservatory of Music “G. Cantelli” in Novara. They are also prize-winners in solo competitions including 2014 Yamaha Music Foundation Competition and 2007 Scriabin International Piano Competition in Paris.
Their musical education has been marked by studies with renowned Professors including Enrico Pace, Chantal De Buchy, Aquiles Delle Vigne, Franco Scala, Roberto Plano, Nelson Delle Vigne – Fabbri and Walter Bozzia. Their interpretation has been influenced by many masterclasses that they have attended in Europe such as Royal College of Music in London, with Stefanina Passamonte, Roustem Saitkoulov, Hiro Takenouchi and Jan Loeffler; Conservatory of Music “G. Cantelli” of Novara, with Professor Alberto Miodini and International Academy and Festival “March Music Days” in Ruse, Bulgaria with Genova & Dimitrov Piano Duo.
In the coming concert seasons Michele and Eleonora are invited for a tournée in South Africa; they’ll also participate in the renowned concert series “Jeunes Talents” in Paris, and in many festivals both as soloists and chamber musicians playing a sparkling repertoire ranging from Schubert Piano Quintet to Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. InItaly they’ll perform for the Società dei Concerti in Milan and the Ravello Concert Society, just to name a few.
Michele and Eleonora are currently studying at the Hochshule fur Musik in Graz under the guidance of Professors Gil Garburg and Sivan Silver.
They have been appointed professors at the Conservatory of Music and Dance in Soissons and at the Conservatory of Music and Theatre of Saint Quentin, where they live. They are also invited to teach at the Summer International Academy of Colombes, in Paris.
View more of their recordings on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxhQpOxyQ-SwDpamGSX0MrQ
S. Rachmaninov Fantaisie Tableaux Op. 5
I. Barcarolle II. La Nuit… l’Amour… IV. Les Larmes V. Pâques
F. Schubert Fantasia in F minor D 940 (piano four hands)
J. Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn,
W. Lutoslawsky Variations on a Theme by Paganini
S. Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943) Fantaisie Tableaux Op. 5
Sergei Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire in 1892 following the immediate success of his final exam composition, the one-act opera Aleko. This unprecedented success was the catalyst which launched his career as a professional composer. The following summer Rachmaninoff composed his first Fantaisie-Tableaux Suite Op. 5 No. 1, making it one of the composer’s earliest mature works. At the time he was staying at the Lysikofs estate in Lebeden, Kharkov, now in present-day Ukraine. He premiered the work himself alongside Pavel Pabst, a pianist and professor at the Conservatoire in Moscow on November 30, 1893. Always an admirer of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, the young Rachmaninoff dedicated the Fantaisie-Tableaux to him. Tchaikovsky promised to attend but tragically never heard the work – he died just five weeks prior to the premiere.
This would be the first of two, two-piano suites Rachmaninoff would compose throughout his lifetime. He wrote in a letter to his cousin and close friend Natalya Skalon: “…at the present time I am working on a fantasy for two pianos, consisting of musical pictures…”. Rachmaninoff would become well-known for his secrecy in regards to his sources of inspiration, therefore it was unusual that he had four poetic epigraphs printed on the score. Some speculation arises regarding how literally the poetic extracts are illustrated in the music, however, Rachmaninoff biographer Max Harrison states that while the poems “…convey something of the emotional tone of the music…” the music itself is not programmatic.
The suite is comprised of four movements, beginning with a “Barcarolle”. The excerpt on the score is from a poem by Mikhail Lermontov which reads “At dusk half-heard the dull wave laps beneath the gondola’s slow oar.” The second movement is titled “La nuit… L’amour…” or “O Night, O Love”. This comes from the Russian translation of a Lord Byron poem which reads “…It is the hour when from the boughs the nightingale’s high note is heard…”. One may group these first two movements by subject matter, namely that the time for loving is brief and passion is fleeting and never returns.
The third, “Les Larmes”, or “The Tears” takes inspiration from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, which reads “…tears, human tears, that pour forth beyond telling / Early and late, in the dark, out of sight…”. The hypnotically descending four-note phrase one hears in this movement denotes the bells of St. Sofiya’s Cathedral Novgorod, which the composer had heard as a young boy as he attended church services his grandmother Butakova. Rachmaninoff describes this motif as “…four silver sweeping notes, veiled in an ever-changing accompaniment woven around them…”. Lastly, the fourth movement called “Pâques” or “Easter Festival” draws inspiration from a poem written by Aleksey Khomyakov. “…across the earth a mighty peal is sweeping, ‘till all the booming air rocks like a sea…”. These last two movements are also thematically paired, this time by the sound of bells. For some, however, the insistent bell motif in the final movement appeared to cross a line, as Rimsky-Korsakov noted it “…oversteps tolerable limits…”
F. Schubert (1797 – 1828) Fantasia in F minor D 940
Schubert began writing the Fantasia in January 1828 in Vienna. The work was completed in March of that year, and first performed in May. Schubert’s friend Eduard von Bauernfeld recorded in his diary on May 9 that a memorable duet was played, by Schubert and Franz Lachner. The work was dedicated to Karoline Esterházy, with whom Schubert was in love. The Fantasia is divided into four movements that are interconnected and played without pause.
The basic idea of a fantasia with four connected movements also appears in Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, and represents a stylistic bridge between the traditional sonata form and the essentially free-form tone poem. The basic structure of the two fantasies is essentially the same: allegro, slow movement, scherzo, allegro with fugue. The form of this work, with its relatively tight structure (more so than the fantasias of Beethoven and Mozart), was influential on the work of Franz Liszt, who arranged the Wanderer Fantasy as a piano concerto, among other transcriptions he made of Schubert’s music.
J. Brahms (1833 – 1897) Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Brahms was in dire need to clear his mind by the summer of 1873. He had been embroiled in a drama concerning a festival organized to raise money for a memorial to honour his late friend Robert Schumann. Temporarily removing himself from this tense situation, he moved to Tutzing, a town near Munich nestled in the foothills of the German Alps. This proved to be an excellent decision as Brahms was exceptionally productive both socially and compositionally during his summer stay. While there he made many friends who became enthusiastic supporters of his art. He also completed his Op.51 string quartets, Op.59 songs, and both the orchestral and two-piano versions of the Haydn Variations. Although written first, the duo piano version of the variations was published as Op.56b and today is not as well-known as the orchestral version Op.56a.
Also known as the St. Anthony Variations, this distinctly neo-classical work is based on a theme from an earlier wind ensemble piece called “Chorale St. Antoni.” Although this piece was credited to Haydn in Brahms’s day, contemporary scholars believe this to be an erroneous attribution. Today the origin of Chorale St. Antoni remains unclear.
The jaunty, march-like theme begins with a repeated ten-measure passage in B-flat major, comprised of two five-measure phrases. The formally interesting and patriotic undertones of the theme were likely attractive to Brahms, the latter appealing to the ardent German patriot in him. During this period of his life he produced many overtly patriotic works, perhaps reflecting the current political situation as Germany had recently become a united nation.
Brahms treats each of the eight variations, which run from less than a minute to four minutes apiece, as a separate character piece. The first variation, indicated as “andante con moto,” displays rhythmic contrast by using two-against-three rhythms, a favourite of Brahms. The second variation, in the parallel minor, is intensely dark with its jarring subito dynamics. In marked contrast, the third variation, back in the major key, is pleasant and flowing, characterized by a constant stream of eighth notes. The fourth continues with the steady eighth-note rhythm in a tragic and subdued manner. A frenzied fifth variation is followed by a slightly tamer sixth, though an insistent rhythmic motive carries on throughout. A seventh variation contains graceful Siciliano rhythms. The serpentine eighth variation is built upon inversion and canonic imitation.
By pairing the variations, Brahms creates the sensation of a multi-movement work, or mini-sonata complete with its own small coda.
The finale is by far the most complex variation, displaying a mastery of counterpoint seldom encountered in Romantic music. The previous winter, Brahms had set a rigorous schedule for himself, writing counterpoint exercises for several hours each morning. After months of study, he felt the training was useless and lamented in a letter to Clara “Still it’s somewhat tragic when, in the end, one gets to be cleverer than useful.” Little did he know that he was about to produce “some of the most miraculous counterpoint Brahms ever wrote,” according to Brahms biographer Styra Avins. In the finale Brahms sets the theme as a repeating five-measure ground bass, with variations in the upper voice, not unlike the passacaglias and chaconnes of the early eighteenth century. In the words of essayist Michael Beckerman, the original theme has now been transformed (after being varied 19 times) from a “charming little theme” to something of “triumph and grandeur.”
W. Lutoslawsky (1913 – 1994) Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Variations on a Theme by Paganini (more precisely, transcriptions of Nicolò Paganini’s twelve variations on the theme of his own Caprice no. 24 in A minor for violin solo) were created in 1941 in a version for two pianos and were premiered in the same year by their composer with Andrzej Panufnik at Aria cafe in the occupied Warsaw.
In the Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Lutosławski made a living for himself and his mother by playing the piano at cafes, most frequently at Art and Fashion, but also Aria, At the Actresses’, and sporadically the Salon of Art, the latter having been run by the pianist and composer Bolesław Woytowicz. Occasionally, Lutosławski accompanied an ensemble in the style of The Revelers, namely the choir Dana, still popular before World War II, and took part in the rare, sometimes official, but usually secret concerts in private apartments. In the years 1940-1944 he regularly played in a piano duo with Andrzej Panufnik.
The duo Lutosławski-Panufnik prepared a repertoire of nearly 200 pieces: arrangements of classical music from Bach to Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and even Stravinsky, as well as traditional jazz motives, among all of which found itself an authored arrangement of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy. This collection also included a transcribed version of Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A minor prepared by Witold Lutosławski and played frequently at Aria cafe and other establishments. As a side note, Panufnik never claimed to have participated in the composition of this piece. From the entire collection of the Lutosławski-Panufnik duo, only the sheet music to the Variations avoided destruction in the Warsaw Uprising.
The theme and its 11 variations with a finale that make up the entire composition by Nicolò Paganini remained untouched as to their structure, but Lutosławski rendered his version with an extraordinary, virtuosic bravado that basically engages the original in a competition. This bravado makes itself apparent through the fact that no matter how varied the types of performance technique applied in Paganini’s solo violin composition, they become transferred with great finesse to the effect of the two pianos, creating a ‘counterpoint’ of that which in its timbral essence remains violinistic, and that which is pianistic.
In keeping with the original, the Variations are tonal, but Lutosławski overlays the diatonic scaffolding with chromaticism and technical solutions sometimes unknown to Paganini, such as the polytonality of the third variation. The variations themselves are simultaneously etude-like, which is a source of not only their expressional, but also purely articulative contrast in the types of motion and various formulas of pianistic technique, such as pizzicato, tremolo, the use of parallel chords, passages, scales, glissandos, and other devices. They naturally connect with the expressional composition of the cycle, something that is perhaps most clear in the sixth variation, marked Poco lento (also the strongest agogic contrast in the entire cycle, the latter being maintained in fast tempos, in keeping with the original model). In this variation the mutually divergent scales in both pianos are played dolcissimo molto legato, only to give way in a maximal contrast of expression to the Allegro molto of the seventh variation.