Going back to the beginning, can you tell me about how you met Tomoe Kawabata and your initial experiences of playing four-hand repertoire together?
Tomoe and I met as students at the Australian National Academy of Music in 2007. I clearly remember my first impression of her - she was intensely preparing Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto for a European tour and even through the practice room doors I could tell she was a formidable pianist. We became close friends during our time at ANAM, constantly having discussions about many different aspects of music and playing. We loved trying to discover the essence of great performances, regularly giving each other feedback and experimenting with different approaches to playing. These discussions were incredibly beneficial for both of us and formed a strong basis of our duo today. We began playing four hand repertoire for fun at ANAM, but for some reason didn't get around to launching our duo properly until we were living on different continents!
What is your rehearsal process like for a concert like Resonances? How often do you practice together in the lead-up to the performance, and what shape do those rehearsals take?
Tomoe lives in Melbourne and I am currently living most of the year in Helsinki, so logistically it is impossible to rehearse as often or as much as we would like. But we also find our shorter, more intensive rehearsal periods immensely productive and rewarding and we meet as often as our schedules allow. For Resonances, we had originally given ourselves a three-week rehearsal period, but that became a bit shorter due to our newly-acquired (very old) second piano needing a complete overhaul by a technician before it was playable! The piano duo is one of the most challenging forms of chamber music. The immediacy of the piano's attack requires a high level of precision in order to play together, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, worrying about the precision of attack can easily lead to vertical playing and can restrict musical freedom, which is much worse than having unsynchronized chords! Paradoxically, this kind of boring, vertical playing for the sake of precision actually makes precision more difficult to achieve. The challenge (and also the fun part) is to achieve complete unification of musical ideas and to develop our listening to such an extent that the playing can be spontaneous and free without worrying about being "together". This is what we are striving for in our rehearsals.
Different repertoire and the specific problems we encounter in our playing call for different rehearsal techniques, so we have a very flexible approach to our work process. We like very detailed work, but as the concert approaches it is also very important to play through whole pieces and the whole program to get a sense of the larger shape of the concert. Recording our playing and listening back together is also an important part of our rehearsal process.
You return to the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2017 to perform three completely different programs with Tomoe, kicking off with some incredibly beautiful works from Japan. Can you tell me a bit about your three-concert series for the MRC, and in particular how you came up with these innovative and compelling programs?
We are really excited about the programs we've put together for our MRC series! We wanted to give audiences three completely different, distinct musical experiences through three programs that explore some of our favourite aspects of duo playing. The programs also reflect our broad musical tastes. We both love playing Mozart, so we decided to give ourselves and the audience a treat by ending the series with Mozart's joyous sonata for two pianos. We also love playing contemporary music and works that are seldom performed. Our first concert contains five first Australian performances of Japanese music that we find delightful, challenging and rewarding to play. Our second concert, "Through whirling clouds", is full of evocative sonic landscapes by well-known composers like Debussy and Ravel alongside wonderful pieces by Judith Weir, Germaine Tailleferre and Carlos Guastavino. Programming takes a lot of thoughtful planning and imagination and we find it a thoroughly enjoyable process. In programming for this year's series we discovered a wealth of other repertoire that we were not able to include, so we have a long list of pieces we would love to play in the future.
The music you have programmed for Resonances: Music from Japan is incredibly evocative and full of colour, some of which has been heard on your record, Five Rocks in a Japanese Garden. What was the recording process like for this particular CD, and what are the different challenges in recording music compared with live performance?
Recording Five Rocks was quite demanding! It can be stressful enough recording solo piano pieces, but recording with two pianos on a tight schedule in a studio environment poses many unique difficulties. And then there are the unexpected challenges. I remember the stress of recording the first movement of Ikebe's "A couple of butterflies". Both pianos play rapid repeated notes in unison in the highest octave on the piano. We realized after one take that one of the pianos was falling in pitch. So on top of the tight schedule, we had the pressure of needing to nail it quickly because of our rapidly mounting tuning bill! Having said that, we had a lot of fun putting that recording project together. It's great to have some distance from a project to really be able to appreciate it for what it is - it is a snapshot of how we played those pieces at that particular time. Coming back to the repertoire now, so many things have changed. Recording in a studio is a completely different experience and requires quite a different mindset from performing a live concert. When playing concerts, it's important to be in relationship with the space you are in - the ears must be finely attuned to listen and react instantaneously to the sound as it's being created in that specific acoustic. But in recording, this can be deceiving; what you hear in the space might not be what is being picked up by the microphone. And if one is sensitive to sound in space, recording in a studio with no feedback can change one's perception of timing and musical expression quite considerably. I don't mean to sound negative about studio recording as it can be highly rewarding. But for me, nothing beats the experience of live performance: hearing sound come to life in a shared space, in that moment, never to be repeated. There's magic in that.
For young pianists hoping to start performing four-hand repertoire, how do you recommend they get started? Do you have any recommended repertoire for duos starting out?
I would recommend grabbing a friend and jumping right in! It's a great way of getting to know repertoire, improving sight-reading skills and having fun. Once you start playing four-hand repertoire (as distinct from two-piano repertoire) it will quickly become evident that there's a lot more to it than you might initially think. Each of the four hands has a different role to play (and these roles can change constantly within one piece) and creating a natural and effective balance requires careful listening and practice. The pedaling in four-hand playing can also be a feat of coordination, as one person must pedal in a way that works for both players and their individual musical material. To start off with, I would recommend the Mozart four-hand sonatas, any of Moszkowski's four-hand pieces and some of the lovely French repertoire like Debussy's Petite Suite, Ravel's Mother Goose or Fauré's Dolly Suite. It can also be very good practice to read four-handed arrangements of symphonies. You could set aside some time every week with a friend to read through some four-hand repertoire and also get to know the symphonic repertoire and their composers more deeply through the four-hand arrangements.
Do you have any advice for young pianists starting their tertiary level journey at the moment? Is there anything you wish you’d known when you were beginning your performance career?
I could share two suggestions for young pianists starting tertiary studies. First, expand and develop your imagination! It is very easy to get trapped in a narrow, goal-oriented mindset when it comes to mastering the technical aspects of playing. But what really makes a powerful, moving performance is the richness of the performer's imagination, and the strength of the connection between the imagination and the physical body in order for sound to come vividly and spontaneously to life. Listen to great performances, go to concerts, soak up as much as you can. Observe how and why it can be possible for vastly different interpretations of a piece of music to be successful - what is it that makes them work? It's very important to realise that learning a piece of music, making a sound on your instrument, is a creative act! There is no right or wrong in music, but there are more or less successful or compelling performances. Start observing why this is, and keep your mind and ears open. Secondly, play chamber music! While you are at uni, find like-minded colleagues and form ensembles. I can't stress enough how important it is for pianists to play with string players, singers, wind and brass players; what you will learn is invaluable. Apart from that, you will get to play some glorious repertoire!
I have learnt so much from the (often messy, unpredictable, frustrating) process of learning all the things I think I know now, so I don't wish I could have known anything earlier. I believe that we all come to know things from our own experiences, in our own time. If I ever get to the point when I feel I know everything I need or want to know, it would mean there is no longer any point in being alive!