Duo Pianissimo – One Piano Four Hands

Back in the 80’s I spent a few years studying and performing works for one-piano four-hands. As  a result, I have an appreciation for the difficulty of performing pieces such wonderful works as  Schubert’s Fantasie in f minor, Faure’s Dolly Suite and Mendelssohn’s Allegro Brilliante (up to tempo).   I recently had the pleasure to interview pianist Justine Verdier, one half of the piano duo, Duo Pianissimo. Justine will be performing  with her partner Daniel Diaz on December 1st in Bollullos del Condado in Huleva, Spain.

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AP:  What attracted you to the piano duo repertoire?

JV: My piano duo partner is also my partner in life. That is why as a couple of pianists we were naturally attracted to the piano duo repertoire, probably to have the opportunity to share something more mutually. We started playing together and found out that we had a lot of ideas and musical feelings in common, and that somehow we could complete each other while we perform, which is not always easy to find in a chamber music partner. That’s why after our first duo concert experiences we decided to keep playing together seriously and create the Duo Pianissimo.

AP: Do you have a favorite piece or composer?

JV: This is a difficult question for any musician. We actually don’t really have “a” favorite piece, we just play pieces that we like a lot, so it is quite hard to choose which one we appreciate the most. Until now I would say that “our” piece is Ravel’s Spanish Rhapsody because it totally represents our duo – a Spanish piece written by a French composer. Daniel is Spanish and I’m French. Besides, it is a masterwork, full of colours, amazing harmonies and always guarantees a real success with the public.

AP: Do you always play the primo part or do you and your partner switch? Do you play two-piano four-hands?

JV: Until now we haven’t had the opportunity to play the two-piano repertoire because before all else it requires 2 pianos to study, which isn’t always easy to find, and anyway most of the concert organizers already complain because they have have to rent one piano for piano recitals, so imagine what they would say for two pianos! That’s why we didn’t start yet to study the two piano repertoire, but it stays in our plans for the future. In our four hands repertoire, we do switch the parts to have the perspective and experience of playing the two parts and better understand what the other one has to do.

AP: What’s your practice routine for Duo Pianissimo? Do you learn the pieces together from the beginning? How do you work on your ensemble playing? Who is your duo coach?

JV: We always learn the pieces together from the beginning because, in my opinion, it has to sound like one  pianist and no professional pianist that I know would start a piece learning his hands separately. Everything has to become a reflex, that’s why it requires many hours of training together, because during a concert you must be able to deal with any accident, for example any problem with the page-turning…We usually practice the pieces in detail, very slow at the beginning to fix any complicated fingerings, the pedal or the arrangements we might invent to make some passages more comfortable to play. Many times the composers seem to enjoy to cross the hands in very awkward positions or write the same note for both of the pianists. After that, we have to secure the places we might not be together (for example, the chords)…we have our personal ways to solve this problem. And then, after all those technical difficulties are cleared up, we can finally concentrate on the musical ideas, the phrasing and the sound. It takes time.

We don’t presently have a duo coach but we did start playing together on the advice of Rolf Plagge, a great pianist and teacher at the Salzburg Mozarteum, who is himself part of the duo Queen Elizabeth that he created with Wolfgang Manz. He has great experience with the piano duo repertoire, and taught us the very important basics about the ways of practicing, which have nothing to do with the solo piano routine.

AP: What problems do you run into that a solo pianist might not encounter?

JV: As I was taking about when I mentioned the reflexes, the most difficult part of four hands performing is the coordination. Many people think that to play in duo is easier than to play solo just because you have a score. It isn’t true at all, and most of the time I think it is actually more difficult than solo piano: you are not alone, whatever you so (well or bad) might influence your partner, unlike the solo piano where you just have to control everything alone. The score is a big help but personally I don’t read so much the musical text beecause it has to be known already by memory. I just need to read some annotations we write about the interpretation or some risky passages where we have to pay a lot of attention. A concert demands a lot of concentration and you can’t have any instant not focused on what you are doing.

AP: Do you have any tips you’d like to pass on to other duo pianists?

JV: Many pianists just want to play the duo piano repertoire with a friend or their life partner for a concert, or think they would prefer to leave their solo piano projects to create a duo with someone, because it is “easier” or not so stressful. This is just a first impression, of course any professional pianist can find a partner and play together for fun. But in my opinion, if you want to sound professional, it is as hard as solo piano, needs the same practicing time or even more. For example, if you have a very difficult part, you shouldn’t only practice what you have to play as if you would be playing alone, and then just play it with your partner one or two times to check if it goes. The practicing has to be very exact in details, otherwise the listener can hear anything that might not be together. You also have to find some signs or movements you will agree together to secure the ensemble. I also recommend to discuss together the interpretation, instead of letting one of you decide and command everything. After all, it is a duo interpretation and the creation of two musicians sensibilities – that is what is so beautiful about it.

AP: Tell us about your upcoming concerts. Do you have plans to release a CD?

JV: Our next concerts will be in Bollullos del Condado (Huelva, Spain) on December 1st, in March 2010 at the Cziffra Festival in Unieux (France), and then in September 2010 in Cannes (France). We have some concert projects in Mexico and Dubai but they aren’t yet confirmed. We don’t yet have plans to release a CD because I’m still studying a Master of Solo Piano at Salzburg Mozarteum. Daniel is working as a teacher and also has some very important exams to prepare and we haven’t yet found the time. But we do have some live recordings of our concerts.

AP: Thank you, Justine, for taking the time and giving us this insight into the world of Duo Pianissimo.

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