Piano Duets: Christoph Stiefel and Gwilym Simcock/ Yaron Herman and Tom Cawley
(Pizza Express Dean Steet, April 16th 2011, early set. Part of Steinway Two Piano Festival. Review by Jeanie Barton)
This was an ear expanding yet nostalgic evening for me. The four-hand configuration could not help sounding like Rachmaninov (his massive hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard – a hand span of approximately twelve inches). During the late 90s I listened to little else, and this evening’s pairing of Christoph Stiefel with Gwilym Simcock and Yaron Herman with Tom Cawley reignited my piano passion.
The first set saw Christoph Stiefel (from Zurich) face Gwilym Simcock (from Bangor). They proceeded to blur the lines between classical and jazz with Gwilym’s composition These Are The Good Days. The rolling rhythmic keys somehow evoked Europe and Russia’s romantic masters; this might have been down to Christoph’s national identity (coincidentally during the 30s Rachmaninov made Switzerland his home, he also wished to be buried there although his death during the second world war made this impossible) or by Gwilym’s own influence of classical composers like Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. They share a love of experimental technique also; Christoph bowed a string which sounded rather like a raw violin or fiddle and Gwilym’s percussion inside the piano frame added tension and a contemporary edge to the instrument. Another number saw Christoph lay a straw on the stings to create a harpsichord effect which bought to my mind Nina Rota’s score for Fellini’s Il Casanova – an eerie sound.
In and Out of Order by Christoph employed a technique called Isorhythm (where the same rhythmic and tonal pattern is repeated) in this case in 6/4 time, upon which Gwilym layered a heavy R&B groove, somehow making the piano frame sound like a double bass. There were also moments of sensitivity with a drop of pace when both pianists seemed bird-like, communicating with soft feathery touches. It appeared that a lot of rehearsal had gone into this presentation, only being able to communicate with their eyes, shoulders and heads, they never the less played complex changes and rhythms simultaneously.
Tom Cawley – like Gwilym Simcock – first attended Chetham’s music school in Manchester and then the Royal Academy of Music; Yaron Herman is an Israeli who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and now lives in Paris. Their set opened in a contrasting gentle style with Yaron’s Blossom. Evocative of music from the early 19th century it built with Michael Nyman-like intensity before ebbing back to a genteel waltz. Tom voiced their concern that Gwilym and Christoph would have been rehearsing so his and Yaron’s response was to buy matching T-shirts so they at least looked as one. They did blend superbly but in more of a call and response way than with intensive layering, however they did shell each other, Yaron taking the outer register of keys and Tom filling the mid range or vice versa, there was more of a sense of improvisation and space and their communication was evident in their super-mobile faces, which also added to the duet’s comedy.
They were very inventive too, employing more contemporary techniques; creating dead key knocks by muting the strings with their palms also Yaron sang along, somehow making kazoo-like noises. Quotes were exchanged from I Loves You Porgy and Get Happy, with Gospel enthused harmonies and Latin/Salsa grooves. Their last number, Radiohead’s haunting composition No Surprises, had the audience in raptures. I felt it took me full circle, sounding strangely like the close to the second movement of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto.