Unusually in the Bridgewater Hall’s International Series, this was a two-piano recital. Not a crowd-puller maybe, but since it was by two of the greatest solo pianists closely associated with Manchester it was a real event.
Two pianists playing two pianos almost always face each other and cannot see their partners’ hands, which means there has to be a near-telepathic connection between their minds, a nod of the head or flicker of an eyebrow being the only real visual connection they can have. This is where a recital of this kind stands or falls – I’ve heard examples where the players almost totally failed to land a shared chord exactly together.
The wondrous thing about Donohoe and Ogawa is that they do it perfectly all the time (or with only the very tiniest imprecisions, and those very rarely). You have to think inside your partner’s mind to achieve that – some can do it and some cannot. These two emphatically can.
The programme was a monumental one, every piece demanding virtuosity of the highest kind.
Debussy’s En blanc et noir, a three-movement suite written in the midst of the First World War and not long before his death, is bleak and bitter in many ways, its central slow movement almost graphically expressing grief over the death of a young soldier, its outer ones grimly providing its setting and a despairing, hard-faced commentary.
And yet … there are melodies in there – beautiful, lyrical themes in the first movement, a long vocalise-like line in the central one, and snippets of tunes even in the finale. These were what Donohoe and Ogawa made us listen to, and their pedalling gave the wash of Debussy’s harmonies a warmth that belied the bitterness.
Then we heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and here there was something refined and almost delicate in the piano sound at first – until they hit those crashing off-beat chords. There was little let-up after that, and the music itself seemed different from the orchestral version, percussive in every part (not just the drums) and almost a new work in its own right. I can’t say I find it pleasurable, but the skill of these two players leaves you open-mouthed, and they found lyrical moments even among the harshest backgrounds.
After the interval they were on more persuasive ground, with Rachmaninov’s last major work, the Symphonic Dances – another piece known well in its orchestral guise. The central waltz movement gave Donohoe and Ogawa the opportunity for that rare experience in two-piano playing, a spot of rhythmic subtlety and rubato. The work is called ‘Dances’, after all, and this dance swayed and whirled with an uncanny unity of articulation. If the opening movement did not have quite that quality, it was again characterized by haunting treatment of its melodies, and the finale’s allegro was a thrilling tour de force.
They calmed the atmosphere down very beautifully with an encore of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
Noriko Ogawa and Peter Donohoe