The art of playing piano duets
Friday, November 17, 2023
'Listening skills, dialogue and a sense of shared endeavour are essential components, as in any chamber music collaboration'
The day to day life of a solo pianist is a highly demanding one, a strange existence of intensely focused practice hours, navel gazing and solitary concert travels. So every time a duo project with Katya Apekisheva appears on the horizon my mood rises expectantly.
We’ve been playing together for over 20 years, meeting first in the 1990s through our inspirational teacher, Irina Zaritskaya at the Royal College of Music. Encounters at piano competition finals and countless student parties ensued, gradually leading to our initial appearances as a duo. Concerts and collaborations grew exponentially to encompass the creation of our own festival – London Piano Festival at Kings Place – plus an expanding series of albums. There have been many moments of shared musical adventures, support and a great deal of hilarity since those early days!
Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva
People often ask how we rehearse together. Does the process differ from preparing a solo piano piece or indeed a collaboration with other instruments? For two piano repertoire the pianists must begin on a level playing field; the identical keyboards reflecting a mirror-image of this ‘state of equality’. There should never be a sense of one player finding themselves subservient to the other. Rather the music created through the paired instruments should result in an artistic marriage of equals, with all the requisite ‘give and take’ that concept entails. Listening skills, dialogue and a sense of shared endeavour are essential components, as in any chamber music collaboration.
Katya and I enjoy the process of learning the duo repertoire together. When tackling a new work we always begin with a private, out-of-earshot sight reading session. This usually begins at a snail’s pace, giving us an overview of the music, before we begin to learn our individual parts in greater detail. Analysing the scores, discovering the layers of polyphony whilst working out the hierarchy of voicing, pedalling and phrasing are essential components. We enjoy taking the musical layers apart, combining and rehearsing them through a wide range of tempi, deploying various touches and dynamic gradations. Only after this process do we put everything back together again, hopefully returning to the complete picture with greater insights and polish. Fortunately we can set our own schedules for this time-consuming but extremely rewarding process!
During rehearsals we enjoy noticing the many inventive ways that composers write for two pianos. Conversation between the players and the sharing of musical honours abounds in masterpieces by Mozart and Rachmaninoff to name just two. Similarly in the music of Francis Poulenc the sense of ideas passing from one pianist to the other is palpable. The resulting ‘orchestral’ quality, so often found in solo piano music, is taken to new heights when twenty fingers are deployed.
Naturally this all leads to the important issue of synchronicity. When a pianist collaborates with another instrumentalist or singer the ‘togetherness factor’, the way notes are approached by breath or bow varies enormously. When the duettists are essentially both playing percussive instruments the challenges of ensemble become highlighted in a completely different, sometimes frustrating way. There are numerous places in the duo repertoire when uniformity of attack is essential to the music in question, others where a gentle de-synchronisation of approach becomes positively desirable. All this take up considerable time during rehearsals but mustn’t become an overwhelming fixation. Breathing together, mental preparation, approaching the keyboard in a similar fashion can all help with ensemble issues. Discovering and sharing a mutual internal pulse is also essential.
Preparations for our latest recording of Poulenc, Milhaud & Debussy began during the bleak winter lockdown of 2021. The rehearsals provided each of us with solidarity and energy at a time when such connections were at their most essential. Immersing ourselves in the colourful music of three fantastic composers - Poulenc, Debussy & Milhaud - was enervating in itself, the sharing of musical ideas so welcome at a time when spirits were occasionally flagging. When we finally entered the Menuhin Hall for the sessions, the two pianos were placed side by side in the ‘twin beds’ position. For concerts we always play with the instruments interlocking, facing each other across a considerable distance. This on-stage set up creates greater tonal and visual impact for pianists and audiences alike. By contrast the more cosy position of parallel pianos is ideal for recording allowing us and the engineers a closer connection.
Whenever I return to solo playing after a period of collaboration with Katya, I always feel extra ‘fired up’ with new ideas, sounds and motivation. There are even times when I consciously channel her creativity into my own playing, a lovely bonus spin-off from our collaborative adventures!