Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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New Classical Tracks: The four hands of Mozart

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Mozart: The complete piano works for Four Hands -– Misha and Cipa Dichter. (album cover)
Mozart: The complete piano works for Four Hands – Misha and Cipa Dichter (Musical Heritage Society 5379317)

St. Paul, Minn. — They met some 40 years ago and have been married for 38 of them; for most of that time, they've been performing together as a piano duo. That's why it's surprising to discover that Misha and Cipa Dichter have just released their first recording together. It's a three-CD album of the complete piano works for four hands by Mozart, plus four-hand arrangements by Busoni and Grieg.

As you might imagine, there is a special chemistry between these two performers. Cipa says being together for so many years accounts for a lot of it.

"Besides the work, and the rehearsing, and the counting," she explains, "there is something you can't put your finger on. It's breathing together and predicting what the other is going to do."

In works featuring two pianos, a statement and answer are implied in the composition. With two people sitting side by side at the same piano, the musical language is much different.

When they perform together, Misha Dichter carries the bass and tenor lines while Cipa takes on the role of the singing voice, in the higher registers of the piano. According to Misha, the overall effect is much fuller.

"In four-hand writing," he says, "it's very much written as a piano sonata with the added breadth of four hands being able to play more orchestral voices."

So which work is their favorite? Cipa votes for the lesser-known four-hand piano pieces. Without a doubt, Misha believes Mozart's F Major Sonata is one of the composer's most moving pieces.

Mozart reserved a slow introduction for his most important compositions, and that's precisely how this work begins. When those first pensive notes are played, we know right away that something special is in store.

"The slow movement is extraordinary," Misha adds, "I'm always aware of its feeling like a wind serenade in its writing. I try to feel very wind-like in playing it. Bassoon lines, clarinets seem hinted at in the piano part."

The delicate interplay between these two performers does make it sound very light and airy, like a wind divertimento intended to be heard outside on a warm summer day, while a gentle breeze taps on the leaves of the trees.

Mozart first wrote piano four-hand music while his family was on tour in London. He was just 9 years old when he wrote his Sonata in C as a showcase for himself and his older sister, Nannerl.

He continued to explore the genre throughout his life, writing his Fantasia in F minor one year before he died. It was commissioned originally for mechanical organ. But during their research, Misha and Cipa Dichter discovered a re-scoring of this Fantasy by Ferrucio Busoni. It begins very boldly, preparing us for the energetic fugue that follows.

As Cipa mentioned earlier, their timing is impeccable, and you can hear these two performers are having a great time with this witty work.

Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 545, was written as a little piano sonata for beginners. Generations of piano students have attempted to tackle it. Misha and Cipa unearthed an arrangement of this work by Edvard Grieg. Misha thinks Grieg was trying to help Mozart out.

"I think he was trying to show what would have happened if Mozart had lived another 150 years, and maybe moved to Bergen, Norway. The wonder of this setting," he explains, "is that Cipa plays that famous C Major Sonata as the straight person and Grieg writes the second part completely around it. The farther you get into the slow movement the more outrageous his harmonies."

"It's one of the few pieces in our repertoire that has people actually laughing, and that doesn't happen very often," Cipa adds.

When I first started listening to this arrangement, I thought maybe I wasn't getting it. Then, it struck me. It reminds me of a dreamy-eyed lounge singer, who's performing with all the sincerity in the world ...Feel free to laugh out loud.

When they first decided to tackle this project Cipa Dichter admits it was a bit daunting. But once they started practicing and learning the new pieces, she says she realized it was really worth it.

"I was surprised at what a pleasure this whole experience was," she says. "It was scary, so much music. We knew most of it, we had to learn some of it. I was a little fearful, but once we started recording it was just a pleasure from beginning to end."

Misha adds, "I'm reminded at something that [pianist Artur] Schnabel once said, which was that he only plays music that's better than can be played. I think that would certainly apply here."

What really strikes me about Misha and Cipa Dichter is that these are two unpretentious musicians who have a lot of passion for one another, and for the music they play. Their goal is simply to share this music with others, not only with this new recording but also with a performance at Washington's Kennedy Center later this month, celebrating Mozart's birthday.

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