The Lisney Briggs Duo

Concert date: 5 November 2018
Reviewed by: JRC

Piano duets are not frequently offered, and what made nadsa Concerts billing last week also rather special, was that all the programme works were originally composed as piano duets. The Lisney Briggs Duo had gathered together a collection of works that would be in the comfort zone of most people and would certainly press the nostalgia button occasionally.

Gal [1890 - 1987], Viennese by birth, had been a much-performed composer of operas and symphonic works in Germany up to 1933. After fleeing to England, he finally settled in Edinburgh, and in 1947 was a founder of the Edinburgh International Festival. His works fell into relative obscurity in the latter part of the 20th century, but have had a revival in the 21st. We heard his Three Marionettes: ‘Pantalone’, ‘Colombina’ and ‘Arlecchiono’, based on the characters from the Commedia dell’arte. These being very suitable as concert openers, the show, of differing parts, had indeed begun.

Introducing the next piece, Sarah Beth Briggs told us about the concerns that Charles Burney, one of the earliest English composers of piano duets, had in the 18th century for the success of that genre: would the close proximity of hands be a problem, and how to accommodate the then fashionable hooped skirts? No such problems today with our Duo’s playing of Mozart’s Sonata for Piano, four hands, in F. The somewhat staid Adagio led to an Allegro giving us all the studied small-scale phrasing, articulation and dynamics one hopes for with Mozart. Its Andante felt stately, even sensual, but with skittish moments. The tempo was certainly upped for the spirited final Allegro, amply filling the auditorium.

Schubert, probably best known for his songs, also wrote many piano duets. We heard his Andantino Varie which had been intended as the middle section of a larger work. Much appreciated were its ripples, being executed with great delicacy.

The Dolly Suite by Faure consists of six short pieces, at least one of which is immediately familiar to most people above a certain age. Written to mark events in the life of Dolly, the first is the ‘Berceuse’, a cradle song. Only a few bars in, and one has this slight lump in the throat, and one wonders whether one is ‘sitting comfortably’, for this was the tune of BBC’s ‘Listen with Mother’. The other pieces give scope for various moods such as meandering in the garden, the nature of Ketty the pet dog, and even the drama of a Spanish dance.

Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No 2 in E minor was a great success when it was published in 1886, and has stood the test of time. James Lisney and Sarah Beth Briggs gave an intensity of dynamics and rubato that was thoroughly appropriate for this highly romantic piece.

What followed were ‘five children’s pieces’ as Ravel subtitled his Ma mere L’Oye [Mother Goose]. Particularly memorable was the third movement, giving us a touch of the orient. Also, the ‘Conversations of Beauty and the Beast’ was very effective: the audience was swathed in a smooth waltz, then juxtaposed with the menace of the beast. The ‘Fairy Garden’ indeed expanded wondrously from warm beauty to stately grandeur.

The Duo brought their programme to a close with Mozart’s Andante and Variations in G which had been written in the same year, 1786, as the Sonata played earlier. A simple theme is stated and then becomes progressively elaborated upon. Both pianists eventually shared the drama and intricacies - there being some sparkling runs - before they returned us to the original theme with calm simplicity.

The encore introduced the only transcription to their concert: an arrangement for four hands of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ from his Nutcracker ballet. A light-hearted reminder that the Festive Season is approaching!