Ralph Vaughan Williams: Concerto for Two Pianos
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Two Pianos was originally composed as a standard concerto for solo piano. Vaughan Williams wrote the work between 1926-1930, and it was first performed in 1933 with Adrian Boult conducting. Technically adventurous and devilishly difficult to perform, the concert was deemed just too difficult for the one player. The concerto was not picked up by many virtuosos because of this, so Vaughan Williams decided to revisit the work. In 1946, Vaughan Williams had the second version published. Now for two pianos and orchestra, this concerto is still technically demanding, but now the burden is shared between two performers.
Set into three highly contrasting movements, Concerto for Two Pianos explores dissonant harmonies and complex rhythms between the soloists and the orchestra.
Movement I – Toccata: Allegro moderato
The dramatic opening movement starts with interplay between the pianos and orchestra. The nuanced syncopation here is very effective, with the pianos grinding against the orchestral accompaniment. The grand style of the piano playing at the start adds intensity and grandeur before the music moves into some more intricate sections. Throughout most of this movement the soloists and orchestra are on opposing sides, and although they mirror each other, it is very rare that they play in unison. There is a united front between the pianos, however, as the movement progresses.
The bold character of this opening movement adds to the excitement and drama of the music, with the light and shade from the intricate and bold sections being a highlight. The united brass try to work with the pianos, but they overthrow their plans and a dramatic piano-only interlude ensues. The vivacious opening movement concludes with a cadenza for the pianos, which is quieter and more sensitive in character. This sudden change in character then bleeds through into the next movement.
Movement II – Romanza: Lento
The second movement Romanza is a change in character from the previous movement, and sees Vaughan Williams explore more dissonant harmony. The slow tempo of the second movement accentuates the mysterious character of the music, with solo instruments from the orchestra interacting with the pianos. In signature Vaughan Williams style, the middle section comprises Romantic strings soaring above as the pianos play a glorious counter-melody. Highly Romantic in style, this central section is rich in texture and orchestral colour. As the texture begins to thin and the dynamics fall, the mysterious character sets back in. This movement concludes with a short reprise of the opening material before finishing quietly.
Movement III/IV – Fuga chromatica: Allegro; con finale alla tedesca
As the title suggests, the third movement is riddled with chromatic movement and is set as a fugue. The intricate nature of this movement paired with the quick tempo makes this a really exciting fugal movement that shows off the technical prowess of the soloists. The orchestra, now much more a united front, oppose the pianos again and the two parties engage in a call and response section. Vaughan Williams’ clever orchestrations create two very bold voices. The fugue then seamlessly segues into the finale movement.
The bombastic nature of the finale movement is seen through the over-dramatic rhythms. The circus-like rhythms are intriguing and this makes room for the chaotic soloists to shine above the orchestra. With the help of the percussion, the finale movement is accentuated and made even more dramatic. The tam-tam roll and the timpani bolster the central climax of the movement. After another cadenza section for the soloists, the Concerto for Two Pianos begins to fade into a very small sound. Ironically the most sensitive part of the whole concerto is the last minute of the finale, and the concerto ends on a gentle pause.
Although Ralph Vaughan Williams’ original concerto was deemed too technically demanding, the decision to revise the work for two pianos allows for this fantastic music to still be performed. The power struggle between the soloists and orchestra is truly thrilling and makes it a well-spent 25 minutes of listening!
Ⓒ Alex Burns