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"Treasures" Robert Cummings

Güher & Süher Pekinel (pianos)
Video formats: Sound: PCM Stereo; Picture: 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray/DVD/CD 109366 [13 discs: 1034 mins]

This thirteen-disc Arthaus Musik box set is one of those massive collections that will be coveted mainly by admirers of the talented piano duo – identical twin sisters Güher and Süher Pekinel. There are fifty-eight performances here, and that number doesn’t include individual pieces within a set like Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Gershwin’s Three Preludes. The set contains also a documentary film and interview. Needless to say I will not comment on everything here but will deal with a good sampling of the works, played in roughly chronological order of composition, going from Baroque repertory, right through Classical and Romantic, onto modern, with a slight detour or two. Please note too that several works appear in more than one performance. Thus, West Side Story, in a special two-piano arrangement, is presented in the same performance on both Blu-ray and DVD from 2015, and in a different performance on CD, from 1988.

The Pekinels’s Bach concerto performances generally feature brisk tempos in the fast movements but are moderately paced in slower ones. Their approach could be described as Gouldian in many respects, but they impart a more legato-like sound, are quite robust, and exude a good measure of warmth, especially in the slower music. Their performances brim with energy and colour, the two always seeming of one mind that effectively captures the soul of each work. In short, they are excellent Bach performers. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra under Howard Griffiths plays with spirit and accuracy in the three performances on CD 5 (BWV 1061, 1062, 1063) and Sir Colin Davis draws fine support from the English Chamber Orchestra in BWV 1062 in DVD 3.

Of course, only BWV 1061 was originally conceived for two harpsichords and string orchestra, the other concertos being adaptations by the composer. There are those who prefer Bach on original instruments but I’m not among them. I can cite the Pekinel sisters’ versions here as evidence that modern piano versions of these works serve the music well, better in my view than the harpsichord renditions. Now, of course, in this collection we also have jazz versions of BWV 1063 plus several movements from these concertos, as adapted by Jacques Loussier, which is a somewhat different matter. I can fully understand that many Bach partisans will not approve. But at least, I can say the performances by the Pekinel sisters and the Loussier Trio members are excellent, probably making the best possible case for this kind of foray.

The Mozart K. 365 is another success here. The Pekinel sisters offer two fine performances, the one on CD (with Marriner), featuring recorded sound with a bit too much reverberation, the other on DVD (Davis) that is slightly more briskly paced and has better sound. In either performance the music effervesces delightfully and the Pekinels impart an infectious sense of spirit and energy. Both Sir Colin Davis and Sir Neville Marriner with their respective orchestras turn in fine work.

The Pekinels’s Brahms F minor Sonata is majestic and utterly compelling, fully capturing the profundities of the stormy first movement, the lyrical warmth of the ensuing panel, the rhythmic vitality of the Scherzo, and the energy and ultimate triumph of the finale. Their tempos are moderate to slightly brisk but always sound perfectly fitting. Yet, some listeners—not me—might prefer the Piano Quintet version. The work was originally conceived for String Quintet in 1862, then arranged for two pianos and later for Piano Quintet. The original was destroyed. This account of the two-piano version will serve listeners just fine. It’s among my favourites in this genre. The Brahms Hungarian Dances, far less serious fare to be sure, are given their just due with utterly colourful and dazzling performances.

Their Mephisto Waltz is so well played in this slightly outsized and glittery version that one almost places it on the level of the brilliant solo piano rendition. The Pekinels’s Ravel is also impressive: La Valse is by turns elegant, dazzling, and wildly prismatic, the playing just stunning; and the Rhapsodie Espagnolebrims with virtuosity, vibrancy, and gorgeous colours.

The Pekinels turn in a strong account of Rachmaninov’s Op. 5 Suite, an early work that has achieved a good measure of popularity. They also make a strong case for the rather garish Malagueña, the one big hit of Ernesto Lecuona. In the end, their playing is simply superb in both works. The very neo-Classical, Stravinsky-tinged Poulenc D minor Concerto is brilliantly played too. While the composer delivered a splendid version with pianist Jacques Février in 1962 on EMI, I prefer the Pekinels’s account for its infectious energy and subtle phrasing. The Milhaud Scaramouche excerpt, Brazileira, which is the finale, is a lighter, jazzier work of somewhat similar character that the Pekinels play with the same kind of spirit and irresistible effervescence.

The Stravinsky Rite of Spring is appropriately savage and wild, and the Pekinels imaginatively phrase the music in the quieter and mysterious sections as well, especially the opening numbers in both Parts I and II. Excellent though the performances are, it’s almost impossible to make the music sound convincing in the duet version. The orchestral original is unbeatable. Still, for those wanting to hear the music this way, the performance is thrilling and certainly won’t disappoint. Their Sacrificial Dance, taken more briskly than is customary, is thrilling in its rhythmic vehemence and drive. A further strength here is that they never go overboard in attempting to replicate the percussive power of an orchestra as some pianists try. In short, they don’t sound harsh or pound.

While most of the discs mix repertory from various periods, Blu-ray/DVD 1 is devoted entirely to 20th and 21st century fare. Penderecki’s brief Chaconne in Memoriam John Paul II (2005) is given a sombre though restive treatment that yields a mixture of sadness and anxiety over the Pope’s passing. The Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion is a bit less aggressive than what you might have come to expect in this work. That said, it’s very convincing, more introverted and probing than usual, with an excellent version of the night-music second movement and plenty of fireworks in the outer movements. The Concerto version of this work is bigger and bolder here, naturally, and equally well played. Zubin Mehta and the Maggio Musicale Orchestra turn in fine work too. The Pekinels effectively capture the sass and carefree spirit of the jazzy, bluesy Gershwin Three Preludes. Their Bernstein West Side Story Symphonic Dances are played wonderfully, but because this adaptation uses two percussionists in addition to the pianos, rhythmic aspects are often emphasized, leaving lyrical movements like Somewhere and Cha-cha, the latter using the Maria theme, mainly to the pianos which can’t quite do full justice when compared with the original vocal/orchestral version(s). Still, the playing by all parties is excellent and despite my reservations, the adaptation is reasonably good. The 1988 performance on CD 4 is also quite fine, perhaps a little more playful and a bit brisker in some of the faster music. The three performances of the Lutosławski Paganini Variations (Blu-ray/DVD 1 and CD 4 for two pianos and percussion, and DVD 4 for two pianos only) are all excellent, though I would opt for the pianos-only version.

The remaining performances are all impressive in some way, making you wonder if the Pekinel sisters ever have a truly bad day. The documentary included in this set, A Portrait about Güher & Süher Pekinel, is very interesting and contains much information about them. You get a clear picture of their personalities, artistry and their lives — from childhood through their student years and into their adult and later years. I was impressed by their perfect English, which betrayed no trace of a Turkish accent. The fifteen-minute interview with them, from 2009, is in German, one of five languages they speak fluently.

In yet another interview that I recently read, the sisters claimed to be quite different from each other, and while I can accept that statement as valid, I would be surprised if they are more individual, particularly in musical matters, than non-twin siblings. From observing their facial expressions, hand and arm movements, and general demeanour during performance, one could say they appear to be near carbon copies. In execution and interpretation at the piano they seem to share virtually identical artistic sensibilities and keyboard styles. But that’s my observation and you may differ in your view. However one looks upon their likenesses and differences, their artistry is undeniably at a very high level, and as duo or four-hand pianists they work as well together as any I’ve ever seen. Their playing here is consistently excellent in this unbelievably wide-ranging repertory.

The box also contains a 100-plus page hard cover book with several essays, including by the Pekinel sisters themselves, and another interview, this one from 2016. Recording information is also provided. Performances on the seven CDs are licensed from Deutsche Grammophon, Chandos, Edel Germany GmbH and Warner Classics. Those with no recording dates specified in the contents below, are likely to be from the 1980s and later. The camera work on the videos is generally quite good, as is the sound reproduction, though the Blu-rays have an edge. On the seven CDs the sound is quite fine and not as variable as one might expect given the different locations and dates. For their many admirers, this is a most welcome tribute to two rare talents who have few if any peers in their category.

Robert Cummings

DVD 1/Blu-ray 1: West Side Story: Pekinels play West Side Story [86:20]
Krzysztof PendereckiCiaconna in memoriam Giovanni Paolo II (arr. Stanislaw Deja)
Bela Bartók: Sonata for two pianos and percussion; Raphael Haeger & Simon Rössler, Percussion
George Gershwin: 3 Preludes for two pianos
Leonard BernsteinWest Side Story Symphonic Dances for two pianos and percussion (arr. Paul McKibbins & Robert Philips); Raphael Haeger & Simon Rössler, Percussion.
Witold LutosławskiPaganini Variations for two pianos and percussion; Raphael Haeger & Simon Rössler, Percussion
rec. live 2015

DVD 2/Blu-ray 2: Zubin Mehta: Güher & Süher Pekinel in Concert [102:34]
Bela Bartók: Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, BB 121
Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
Franz Schubert: Fantasia for four hands in F minor, op. 103, D. 940 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for two pianos in D major, K 448
Claude DebussyEn blanc et noir for two pianos, L 134
Manuel Infante: 3 Danses Andalouses for two pianos: Sentimiento
Francis PoulencÉlégie (en accords alternés) for two pianos, FP 175 Très calme et mélancolique
Johannes BrahmsHungarian Dance No. 5 in F sharp minor
rec. live 2010–2012

DVD 3: Bach Jazz: Güher & Süher feat. Jacques Loussier Trio – Bach Concertos [72:50]
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in D minor for three pianos, BWV 1063 Jazz Version (arr. Jacques Loussier) – 3rd movement
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C minor for two pianos and strings, BWV 1060 Jazz Version (arr. Jacques Loussier) – 1st movement
Jacques Loussier, piano
Vincent Charbonnier, bass
André Arpino, drums
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C minor for two pianos and strings, BWV 1062
English Chamber Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 2001–2007
Documentary Double Life: – A Portrait about Güher & Süher Pekinel (2004) [41:46]

DVD 4: Güher & Süher Pekinel Live in Concert [86:05]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto No. 10 in E flat major for two pianos, K 365
English Chamber Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
Francis Poulenc: Concerto in D minor for two pianos, FP 61
Johannes Brahms: Sonata in F minor for two pianos, op.34 b (1st movement
Sergei Rachmaninov: “Fantaisie-tableaux” Suite No. 1 for two pianos, op. 5 2nd movement
Witold LutosławskiPaganini Variations: Allegro Capriccioso
rec. 2006-2007
Interview with Güher & Süher Pekinel (2009) [15:39]

CD 1: Piano Works Part 1 [76:24]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fuga in G minor, K401 (375e)
Johannes Brahms: Sonata for two pianos in F minor op. 34b
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia for Mechanical organ in F minor, K 608 (Composer´s transcription for 4 hands)
Franz LisztMephisto Waltz No. 1 (The Dance in the Village Inn)
Maurice RavelLa Valse, Poème Choréographique
(Composer’s transcription for 4 hands)
rec. dates unspecified

CD 2: Piano Works Part 2 [69:14]
Igor StravinskyLe Sacre du PrintempsScenes of a Pagan Russia in two parts, Version for piano duet
Sergei Rachmaninov: Suite No. 1 for two pianos, op.5 “Fantasie-Tableau”
Francis Poulenc: Élégie (en accord alternés) for two pianos, FP 175
Très calme et mélancolique
Ernesto LecuonaSuite Andalucia for piano No. 6: Malagueña
Sergei Rachmaninov: Suite No. 2 for two pianos, op. 17
Valse. Presto
rec. dates unspecified
CD 3: Piano Works Part 3 [69:42]
Wolfgang Amadeus MozartAdagio and Fugue in C minor for two pianos, K 426
Camille Saint-SaënsVariations on a theme of Ludwig van Beethoven, op. 35
Enrique GranadosGoyescas, op. 11 No. 4 Quejas, o la Maja y el ruiseñor
Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances No. 5, 7, 17, 20, 21
Maurice RavelRhapsodie Espagnole
Johannes Brahms: 16 Waltzes, op. 39 arranged by composer for two pianos – Nos. 1, 2, 11, 14 & 15
Johann Sebastian Bach“Jesus bleibet meine Freude” Chorale from Cantata No. 147
Manuel Infante: Three Danses Andalouses for two pianos
rec. dates unspecified

CD 4: Pekinels Play West Side Story [73:21]
Leonard BernsteinWest Side Story Symphonic Dances for two pianos and percussion (arr. Paul McKibbins & Robert Philips)
Peter Sadlo and Stefan Gagelmann, percussion (recorded 1988)
Krzysztof PendereckiCiaccona in memoriam Giovanni Paolo II
(arr. Stanislaw Deja)
Bela Bartók: Sonata for two pianos and percussion, BB 15
Peter Sadlo and Stefan Gagelmann, percussion
George Gershwin: three Preludes for two pianos*
Witold LutosławskiPaganini Variations for two pianos and percussion (Turkey Premiere)
Simon Rössler and Raphael Haeger, percussion
Jacques Loussier Trio members, Andrè Arpino, Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C minor for two pianos, BWV 1060 (Jazz Version – 1st movement)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C major for two pianos, BWV 1061 (Jazz Version – 2nd movement)
rec. 1988* & unspecified

CD 5: Piano Concertos Part 1 [70:56]
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto, in C minor for two pianos and strings BW 1062 (Classic Version),
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C major for two pianos BWV 1061,
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in D minor for three pianos BWV 1063
Zurich Chamber Orchestra/Howard Griffiths
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto in E flat major for two pianos K 365
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. dates unspecified

CD 6: Piano Concertos Part 2 [72:31]
Felix Mendelssohn: Concerto in E major for two pianos and orchestra
Max Bruch: Concerto in A flat minor for two pianos op. 88a
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Neville Marriner
Francis Poulenc: Concerto in D minor for two pianos FP 61
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Marek Janowski
rec. dates unspecified

CD 7: Piano Concertos Part 3 [79:03]
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in C minor BWV 1060
Zurich Chamber Orchestra/Howard Griffiths
Bela Bartók: Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra BB 121
Lorenzo D’Attoma and Fausto Cesare Bombardier, percussion Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
Camille Saint-SaënsConcerto Le carnaval des animaux R.125 Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Marek Janowski
Darius MilhaudScaramouche op. 165b (BrazileiraMouvement de Samba
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto in D minor for three pianos BWV 1063 (Jazz version)
Jacques Loussier Trio, André Arpino, Benoit Dunoyerde Segonzac
rec. dates unspecified