Gavin and Joanne Pearce Martin’s piano duo recital was like a visit to a fabulous art gallery, where exquisite miniatures shared wall space equitably with larger-than-life artworks by the Great Masters. And just as a miniature requires just as much thought and skill in its creation as larger masterpiece, so also in music.

They began with Edvard Grieg’s two Norwegian Dances (Opus 35) for four hands, played with sensitivity and elan.

Rachmaninov’s ‘transcription’ of Fritz Kreisler’s salon piece of violin Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) is almost a “Fantasie” based on the original melody, and infinitely more melancholic; layer upon layer of Russian brooding and typically Rachmaninovian chromatic harmonies and fleet-fingered passagework superimposed on a gemütlich alt-Wien canvas. Similarly the reworking of Isaac Albeniz’ popular Tango by Leopold Godowsky (often called “the pianist’s pianist”) adds a whole new dimension to it, while throwing seemingly impossible challenges to the performer. This latter work was a favourite of Gavin’s Latin American mentor Jorge Bolet, who in turn was taught by Godowsky, so when Gavin played it for us, we were hearing a sacred lineage unfold, an echo of history in the finest sense. He gave us a dreamy, contemplative account of Rachmaninov’s E-flat major Prelude (Op. 23, No. 6) with its singing right-hand melody over a running ascending and descending harmonic framework in the left hand.

Joanne worked the Chopin Ballade no. 1 (G minor, op. 23) into the programme on popular demand. Like a masterful painting which offers something new to the viewer no matter how often one visits it, this great work rewards repeated listening. As the music washed over us in Joanne’s magisterial performance, I was struck particularly by that wonderful moment when it ultimately bursts forth into a definitive major key, like a glorious albeit brief European summer. The elemental uplifting power of this work has recently been the subject of a TV documentary.

Gavin ended the first half of the concert with Polish composer Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Arabesques on Johann Strauss II’s famous Blue Danube waltz, another Jorge Bolet favourite. It is a throwback to the “Golden Age” of piano virtuosity, and gave Gavin ample rein to display his own virtuosity, from the ear-tickling feathery introductory runs into the treacherous challenges along the way, but also giving loving shape to the reflective moments. A showstopper to end any concert, let alone a first half! Incidentally, this was the “dazzler” referred to in the glowing review Gavin received in the New York Times following his Carnegie Hall debut.

After the interval came the centrepiece of the concert: Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor (D. 940), written the year of his death (1828) and dedicated it to Karoline Esterházy, with whom he was in (unrequited) love. Musicologists even point to the significance of the tonality, F minor apparently often used to express hopeless love. It has been described by musicologist Christopher Gibbs as “among not only Schubert’s greatest but his most original” compositions. Gavin and Joanne soon made it clear why. Their performance had haunting beauty and depth, with supple phrasing and tempi that had both elasticity and forward motion. The scherzo section called to mind the scherzo of Schubert’s ‘Great’ symphony. And the fugue must surely rank up there with the best of them.

Joanne gave us two solo works, Chopin’s famous Nocturne in E flat major (opus 9, no. 2) and Mendelssohn’s Song without Words Op. 67 no. 4 “Spinnerlied.” The latter had hints of the fairy-dust magic writing of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from his Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially the way it vanishes into thin air at the end. We certainly saw and heard what the Los Angeles Times meant by “stirring virtuosity” in description of her playing.

Gavin returned with two Rachmaninov works: A transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby (Rachmaninov’s last work) and his Prelude in C sharp minor (Opus 32, no. 1). Tchaikovsky’s melancholic melody is ‘metamorphosed’ into a dark forlorn work with Rachmaninov’s distinctive harmonies and decorations. In this work and the Prelude that followed Gavin demonstrated the superlative technique, pianistic instincts and interpretive spirit that so impressed Alan Kozinn in his glowing review of Gavin’s Carnegie Hall debut in the New York Times.

The last work (for four hands) was a veritable dazzler: a “twist” on the third movement of Mozart’s piano sonata no. 11.A Turkish march (Ronda alla Turca) transformed into Samba alla Turca! by Philip Buttall. Vienna meets Istanbul meets Rio de Janeiro! This witty arrangement had shades of Tico Tico, and at the very end even the opening bars of Mozart’s own piano sonata no. 16 in C major were cleverly tucked in for good measure.

The encore piece, Le pas espagnole from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly suite for four hands, a lively Spanish dance in the style of España by Fauré’s friend Emmanuel Chabrier brought the concert to a flamboyant end.

Here’s hoping we can persuade Gavin and Joanne to come back more often with more concerts just like this. Olé!


(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 24 September 2013)