Meet the Music Makers: Duo Tal & Groethuysen

Duo Tal and Groethuysen leaning over an open grand piano

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In conversation with piano Duo Tal & Groethuysen:

UChicago Presents: How did you first meet and begin performing together in this setting – two pianos/four hands?

Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen: We first met as students at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. It was the usual story… We were what you call a couple, but we did not play together, as each of us was striving for a solo career. About five years later, Andreas’s manager booked a concert for duo pianos, and asked us not to refuse and to give it a try… Well, we did not want to disappoint her, and started to look for a repertory that would be a challenge for us and pleasure for the audience. We were, on one hand, surprised by the richness of this literature, and on the other hand, we figured out that we were also a musical match… So, that is how it started!

UCP: Your repertoire as a duo generally falls into one of two categories – works for four hands on a single piano and works for two pianos. Pieces like La mer and Till Eulenspiegel are likely familiar to audiences through their original orchestral versions, while Mozart’s Sonatas for Four Hands or Schubert’s F Minor Fantasie may be new for some people. Were you very familiar with these works of Mozart and Schubert before you started performing as a duo? 

Y&A: Yes, we already knew both of those pieces. Yaara had some more experience with duet and duo playing, as she had performed as a child in Israel in recitals together with her piano teacher, Azriel Berezowski. Later on, she also performed Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in Jerusalem with Gina Bachauer. Anyhow, we knew the Schubert F Minor Fantasie, but we definitely had no idea how vast and deep Schubert’s whole output for piano duet was! No other composer of his standard has ever dedicated so much inspiration and energy to that genre. We all are lucky to have this treasure. We have recorded the integral work of Schubert for Sony Classical, and the box contains no less than seven CDs! The Mozart box set, which we also recorded for Sony, followed about ten years later. The  importance of the roles of both of these giants for the universal musical heritage needs no explanation; perhaps the more stunning revelation was the quantity and quality of works by the “rest.” The repertory for two pianists includes two groups of works: unknown works written by rather well-known composers, and astonishing and valuable works composed by “no-names!”

UCP: On this program, you’ll be performing Wagner’s own arrangement for four-hands of his Overture to Tannhäuser. Listeners may also know a different version of this piece for piano: Liszt’s version of the Tannhäuser Overture for solo piano. How might you characterize the musical differences between Liszt’s version and the four-hands version? What is it about this version that you particularly appreciate as a performer?

Y&A: The four-hands version offers, of course, much more possibility to transfer parts from the orchestral original. The solo version, because of its technical difficulties, tends to be more of a virtuoso showpiece than just a serious transcription. That doesn’t mean that the solo version is not serious, but often times, the triumph over the technical intricacies sometimes takes too much priority. The four-hands version gets much closer to the abundance of an orchestra! In addition, Wagner’s four-hand transcription of that Tannhäuser Overture is the only one of his own works he ever accomplished. He allowed himself to significantly change the passages at the end originally scored for violin, which are extremely unpianistic. 

UCP: La mer strikes me as an interesting addition to the four-hands repertoire. For works by a composer like Debussy, who was famously so specific with the colors and nuance he achieved in his orchestration, I can imagine one of the main challenges in performing this version is in bringing out those variations in color on the modern piano, which has such a consistent sound throughout its register. When performing this work for two pianos, what techniques do you use to try to capture, or at least suggest, the various colors Debussy achieved in the orchestral version?

Y&A: Since the piano as an instrument has such a consistent, as you suggest, and also a somewhat abstract sound, piano playing always requires that musicians imagine other instruments or human voices! Even when we play keyboard works by Bach or Mozart, we are dreaming, imagining, or suggesting different instruments and their tonal and musical character. Thus, one is prepared to somehow imitate orchestral instruments and their colors. The technical disposal of all possible tonal colors on the piano is a basic condition when playing orchestral transcriptions. But, on the other hand, the reduction of all the orchestral colors to the analytic piano sound sometimes helps to understand other structural details of the composition. The wealth of tonal colors in the orchestra here and there is hiding the construction of the piece. 

UCP: La mer may be somewhat of a special case, but in general, when preparing orchestral transcriptions, how important is referring to the original orchestral version in formulating an interpretation for two pianos/four hands?

Y&A: Debussy’s two-piano version of his L’après-midi d’un faune, for instance, could almost be an original piano piece! Or to put it another way: There are solo pieces by Debussy, in his Préludes or elsewhere, which seem to call for orchestral instruments. Therefore, it can also make sense to play such a transcription just like a colorful piano piece. 

UCP: I also find it interesting that in the three orchestral adaptations on this program, one was arranged by the composer himself (Tannhäuser Overture), while the others were arranged by someone else (Till Eulenspiegel and La mer, although of course Caplet knew Debussy and his music very well). In your estimation, is there a significant difference in the methodology by which these arrangers adapt the works in question for two pianists? 

Y&A: That might be a rewarding subject for a musicological thesis – to find out how exactly all these famous transcribers found their personal way to put orchestral piece for two pianists. For sure, that requires an enormous amount of experience. Otto Singer, the transcriber of Till Eulenspiegel who virtually transcribed everything in his day (there have been two famous transcribers named Otto Singer: father and son!), really seems to know which parts to take and which to eliminate. And, too, where and in which register of the keyboard to shift these voices or lines. That probably marks the main difference between the transcribers: The knowledge of where a special line sounds best on the piano. It’s not necessarily the same position as the part in the orchestra! 

UCP: Though all the works on this program date from the turn of the nineteenth century or earlier, many composers are still creating new works for two pianos/four hands – in duet, chamber, and orchestral settings. Are there any composers you’re particularly interested in collaborating with on new repertoire for Duo Tal & Groethuysen?

Y&A: Yes! For instance, we asked the German composer Reinhard Febel to work on Bach’s Art of Fugue and transfer it into a version for piano four-hands and string quartet. His creative process resulted in his 18 Studies after Bach’s Art of Fugue for two pianos, which we performed last summer – for the first time completely! We got to know Febel’s transformations quite a while ago, since we often performed his 7 Choralbearbeitungen Nach Bach for four hands. He takes the original and creates a new piece by adding chords, shifting lines, dealing with rhythmic complications – but always referring strictly to the structure of the original. We very much admire Febel’s knowledge of the piano and possibilities of four-hands piano playing.