A bright early autumn Sunday morning on Holywell Street, the college entrances clogged with returning students, including apprehensive-looking first years with solicitous parents hovering. In the queue for the Coffee Concert was a gent from Chester who confided to me that he'd been an Oxford student more than 50 years ago and had never once been back until today.
Our players were performing piano four-hands, ie playing not as a duet playing two separate pianos, but both of them at a single piano. As may be supposed, this format means the playing position is cramped, and great skill and experience are required both for the physical placing of the hands and for the aesthetic dovetailing of purpose and output. When I enquired of Mr Crawford-Phillips the rationale for the choice of programme material, he told me that the four items had been chosen to showcase the repertoire from the most fruitful periods of piano four-hands arrangements, viz. the late 18th and the early 20th centuries.
We began with Maurice Ravel's 1910 transcription of Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune. This is played infrequently compared with Debussy's original for orchestra, and initially I missed the input of the orchestra, particularly the woodwinds. But from its halfway point the music became more dense as our players started to pile on the layers of sound, and one began to appreciate why Ravel once remarked he would like this work to be played at his funeral.
On to two pieces by W A Mozart, the programme notes making the point that the first of them, Variations in G major for duet, K50 would have been written for surface entertainment rather than profundity. Messrs Crawford-Phillips and Moore now switched positions, the former moving to the bass end of the piano. The most striking feature of the Variations was the swaying, running triplets in the second variation. These featured a second and a third time, the thematic structure of the music being not so much embellished as organically developed though each repetition.
There followed the weightier Sonata for Four Hands in F major, K497 which commences as a solemn andante and only gradually morphs into allegro tempo. I have this on CD, played by four hands live in Utrecht on a fortepiano. Generally I find a little of a fortepiano sound goes a fairly long way, but here the tinkling notes from the treble end of the piano are very suitable for playing on the pianoforte's predecessor. Our soloists presented an interesting visual contrast at the keyboard: whereas the besuited Mr Crawford-Phillips' body movement and facial expressions were animated, Mr Moore sat tieless in purple and black, relatively still and often presenting an impassive face.
It's not often that Mozart is upstaged at a recital, but now that rare thing occurred. Mr Moore's transcription of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite from his Ballets Russes music score, only a brief 12 mins long, came at us like a juggernaut lorry on the loose down Holywell St, scattering pedestrians left and right. Mr Crawford-Phillips, now back at the treble keys and often crossing hands, beautifully imitated effects like the string tremolos of the orchestral suite while Mr Moore exploded in spontaneous sunbursts of energy. How the harassed page turner kept up I shall never know. The latter section contained tremendous doubled chords, leading to the final flourish that all but brought the house down!