This Sunday afternoon, Timothy Young and three up-and-coming pianists from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) perform a programme of music composed for piano four-hands including Carl Vine’s Sonata for Four Hands, played in five sections without a break. Presented by Sydney Opera House, the concert will take place in the Utzon Room.

Photograph © Pia Johnson

Young is one of Australia’s most prominent and versatile pianists. He is a founding member of Ensemble Liaison and performs regularly in recital as a soloist, and in partnership with leading Australian and international musicians and ensembles. He is currently the Head of Chamber Music and Resident Piano Faculty at ANAM. For this concert, he is joined by ANAM pianists Liam Wooding and Alexander Waite, and alumnus Laurence Matheson.

Here he shares his thoughts on the piano four hand form:

At the forefront of this form, Mozart contributed significantly with masterpieces which he performed with his sister ‘Nannerl’ (Maria Anna “Marianne” Walburga Ignatia Mozart) and later Hummel.

In a previous era, the piano took centre stage in everybody’s lounge room and music became a widely accepted form of home entertainment, where composers made a range of works for the amateur to the accomplished pianist. For pedagogical use, one part could be considerably more difficult to allow the teacher to play alongside the student with a less complex role but experience the full sonorities and orchestral potential of the instrument.

This genre was also a great way to disseminate and hear music, like purchasing a CD but with more active participation. From string quartets to orchestral works these reductions allowed musicians and their audience to hear and experience a broader range of works, which they may not have otherwise had the opportunity to. We’ve been fortunate over time to have had brilliant pianist-composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, and Grieg to Grainger to Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Ravel, Fauré and Debussy make arrangements of their own works and of others.

The ‘Salon’ and ‘Soiree’ was the perfect situation for musicians to come together and make music this way. Chamber music for pianists is an entirely satisfying and effective genre and Schubert was certainly one composer who took it seriously. Brahms and Schumann too enjoyed this genre and many Australians including Percy Grainger, George F Boyle, Peter Sculthorpe, Elena Kats-Chernin and, more recently, Carl Vine have made important contributions. Debussy himself writes of the joy of playing four hands at the piano – one of his partners was none other than Igor Stravinsky.

Sitting at the one instrument and sharing the space – and often the same notes – really brings the interactive side of chamber music making to a physical level. Choreography becomes an important consideration as the rehearsal and performance can lead to some hilarious moments of entanglement. Audiences will certainly enjoy the spectacle of watching two pianists interact this way and with 20 fingers in the mix the sororities can be impressive.

The repertoire available is considerable but here is a selection that will hopefully whet the appetite of the reader/listener:

Mozart: Sonata in C Major K521

One of the great Sonatas in this genre written with Mozart’s customary perfection.

Schubert: Fantasy in F Minor

Possibly one of the most famous works for four hands which even featured in a film Madame Sousatzka with Shirley MacLaine.

Beethoven Symphonies

Arrangements for four hands by Hugo Ulrich are an important contribution for disseminating the works of one of the greatest composers of all time.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

An exciting and difficult arrangement by the composer of his famous ballet. This well-known documentary introduced me to this arrangement many years ago.

Debussy: The Petite Suite

A charming work and masterpiece in the genre.

And some more recent contributions to the form:

Schoenfield: 5 days from the life of a manic depressive

A very exciting work to watch but extremely fun and difficult to play. We will perform this in the concert.

Carl Vine: Sonata for 4 hands

Carl Vine writes in his preface: ‘In my earlier piano sonatas I occasionally wished that the soloist could grow an extra hand to manage all of the requisite notes. In the long run, adding an extra player seemed more prudent, and it now seems odd to me that the ‘four hand sonata’ has enjoyed so little popularity since the nineteenth century’. Let’s hope Carl will write another one.

ANAM: Piano Four Hands is at the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House on Sunday December 3 at 3pm


Sign up to the free Limelight newsletter