Concert programs normally consist of the usual suspects like music written for large orchestras, small orchestras, string orchestras, or choruses. You won’t find any of them in today’s Melophile, or any of the other usual suspects like vocal recitals, instrumental trios, and string quartets that regularly appear on playbills.
The compositions you will find here were written for only one or two musicians playing in combinations you don’t find very often. These selections are more likely to be heard at festivals and composer retrospectives, in small venues, music conservatories, and college concert halls, or in other intimate settings. Most of the music recommended here is performed on the instruments the composer intended, although a few pieces have been transcribed so they can be played on different instruments (for example, a musician might think, “why should I be left out if I’ve always wanted to record “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly on my tuba?”). Although some of the combinations included below are more commonly found than others, they still aren’t likely to be scheduled on a program of orchestral or chamber music that’s dominated by the usual suspects…and you might be missing out on some superb pieces.
As usual, recommended recordings are indicated at the start of each annotation. If the recommendation isn’t available on YouTube I’ve substituted an LP, CD, or video of equal interest to listen to for immediate satisfaction.
Béla Bartók/44 Violin Duos/Angela and Jennifer Chun, violins (HMU 907501 CD) Béla Bartók, the composer of such well-known orchestral pieces as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Concerto for Orchestra, and The Miraculous Mandarin also wrote small scale works for just one or two instruments.
According to music critic John Henken , in 1906 Bartók wrote to his sister, “Now I have a plan to collect the finest Hungarian folk songs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art song.” Together with composer Zoltán Kodály, who was also an ethnomusicologist, “they began collecting folk songs, recording them with phonographs and wax cylinders. Bartók continued this work through the end of World War I…In the process, he gathered almost 10,000 melodies and, with Kodály, created the foundation of all subsequent research in that area.”
Bartók wasn’t very interested in teaching but did write a large number of pedagogical works in order to promote folk music. Probably the most famous of these works is the Mikrokosmos, 153 progressive piano pieces in six volumes composed between 1926 and 1939. During this same time period he composed the 44 Duos for 2 violins (1931) as a collection of progressively more difficult pieces for young students to play. The Duos are based on Hungarian, Slovakian, Wallachian, Ruthenian, Romanian, Serbian, Arabian, Transylvanian, and Ukrainian traditional songs and dances, some of which Bartók also arranged a few years later as a Petite Suite.
Join the audience for a performance of duos Nos. 16 (“Burlesque”), 22 (“Dance of the Fly”), 28 (“Sorrow”), 36 (“Bagpipes”), and 41 (“Arabian Dance”) played by Elmar Oliveira and Hagai Shaham. Angela and Jennifer Chun are also on YouTube performing duos from their HMU recording, but the choices made for their video are less representative of the music than Oliveira’s and Shaham’s selections.
Avi Avital/Art of the Mandolin (DG ASIN:B08FKP2ZYV CD) Avi Avital is an Israeli mandolinist best known for his adaptations of Baroque and folk music, most originally composed for other instruments. His first recording, a collection of compositions entitled Bach, was released in 2012 during one of the years I happened to be working in a classical music store. When the staff first saw the cover of Avital’s CD, we thought it was some kind of joke or parody, like Tiny Tim tip-toeing through the tulips and re-imagining songs that were already fine the way they were. After all, what was Avital doing playing Bach on an instrument that isn’t ordinarily considered an orchestral instrument?
Allan Kozinn pondered the question in The New York Times issue of March 26, 2012:
“Is the mandolin about to have its moment as a classical solo instrument? Its repertory back catalog is slim – a couple of Vivaldi concertos and some early Beethoven, most notably, as well as parts in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde – but its contemporary repertory is colorful and growing.
The venerable Deutsche Grammophon label just signed its first mandolinist, Avi Avital. And now bluegrass, jazz and pop mandolinists are making incursions into classical precincts. Among them, Mike Marshall is touring with his own concerto, and Chris Thile – the instrument’s brightest star at the moment…was the main draw at the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s concert at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening.”
Art of the Mandolin consists exclusively of original pieces composed by Avital for the mandolin. Although the mandolin has been used before to add a unique sound to the orchestra (e.g., in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet) it takes center stage here with its own original repertoire.
Igor Stravinsky/The Rite of Spring/Two piano arrangement by Vyacheslov Gryaznov/Martha Argerich and Akane Sakai, pianos (Video) Piano duos are usually performed on two pianos, or more rarely on one piano with two players. With Argerich and Sakai at the pianos, all of the excitement from the orchestral version is still there: the conflicting rhythms, wild syncopations, melodic fragments, and dissonant harmonies. In fact, they’re even clearer in this stripped-down version where, for example, rhythms and instrumental clashes you haven’t noticed before suddenly make an impact. In other words, at times the pianos reveal more there, here. To paraphrase one listener in the comments section: “What this version loses in color it gains in rhythm, and The Rite –a piece built on rhythm – is here being played solely on two percussion instruments.” The music is as exciting as ever and you might find yourself moving to it in unexpected ways, giving be-bop an entirely new meaning.
Make it a double feature. Combine your love of music and movies, and perhaps enjoyment of nostalgia by re-visiting an old favorite: the section with dinosaurs from Disney’s 1940 Fantasia that uses The Rite as its score. It can be found (not in the best video quality) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Vw-fy-Gfl8.
Double Portrait/Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, pianos (Blue Note SKU5099962756020 CD) What has four feet, several pedals, several legs, and lots of action but doesn’t quite know where it’s going? No, it isn’t Ferrante & Teicher, the piano duo who performed easy listening arrangements of music during the 1960s. It’s Bill Charlap and wife Renee Rosnes playing and improvising jazz on two pianos. They might not always know what will happen along the way but they get to the finish with inventiveness and creativity. “This recording is as pure as it can be: two phenomenal talents whose minds and hearts speak through the dizzying mathematical possibilities of 176 individual choices, producing one glorious sound in an atmosphere designed to caress its every nuance.” (Joel Moss, album producer)
The Beauty of Two/Paul Hindemith/“Sonata for Viola and Piano”/The Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Dorian DSL90705 CD) Physically, the viola is larger than a violin but not as big as a cello. Its repertoire as a solo instrument is small primarily because it has traditionally been used to fill in and add richness to the sound of the other strings in chamber and orchestral music. It usually plays the inner voices but does occasionally play a major role in orchestral music. For example, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann wrote pieces that featured the viola, and Max Bruch composed several pieces for the instrument including a romance for viola and orchestra that explores the emotional capabilities of the viola’s timbre. 
Hindemith’s “Sonata” is one of his most melodic pieces. Unfortunately, the performance I own isn’t on YouTube, which sent me hunting for an alternative recording to include here. Trying to find another fine performance is always difficult, and finding one for the “Sonata” was especially challenging. It’s the Goldilocks dilemma: trying to find something that’s just right. I started with a video of two famous musicians performing the piece and thought I wouldn’t have to look any further, but found their playing kind of dreary, routine, and anything but involving. Some performers missed the beauty of the melody. Other players were too slow, cold, or disengaged and didn’t hold my attention.
There are usually a number of different examples indicated on the right side of the YouTube screen that include performances by non-Western groups; show videos of student, teacher, and conservatory performances; and present local performances of varying quality and interest. I started playing one at random. The musicians caught my attention immediately with their energy and passion. A clear video, excellent sound, and good photography added to my enjoyment and I knew I had a winner. I’m familiar with pianist Jeremy Denk but not with violist Richard O’Neill, which made me wonder how many other great performances we’re missing because we aren’t familiar with the artists. This is an expressive and engaging reading, one of those performances I could go on and on about. But I’ll stop now and exercise some self control. Perhaps. After all, I do know more glowing adjectives…
Hands on Heart: Live at Wigmore Hall/Alexander Glazunov/“Chant du Menestrel”/Tim Hugh, cello with Olga Sitkovetsky, piano (Naim Classical NAIMCD118 CD) For a big finish with a small number of people, listen to Glazunov’s plaintive “Chant.” The “Chant,” with its nostalgic and expressive melody, was composed in 1900 and evokes a Russian troubadour’s song. Originally written as a cello/piano duo, and in a reversal of the usual “let’s take an orchestral composition and adapt it for chamber music” approach, the “Chant” was transcribed into an orchestral version with solo cello.
This is another selection I had trouble recommending because I couldn’t locate Tim Hugh’s performance on YouTube.  Once again, the Goldilocks dilemma came into play as I tried several selections I wasn’t familiar with. Ethan Cobb’s video came close to winning the recommendation, but with the exception of terrific playing and a few outstanding details I found his playing a bit too restrained. (Of course some listeners might prefer this approach.) Christy Choi, however, has all the talent and emotion you could ask for without actually shedding a tear: She has more body movement as she responds to the music, uses a wider range of dynamics, and shows a deeper involvement with the piece than Cobb. Both the cellist and her accompanist are absolutely terrific.
 As quoted in his HMU recording liner notes.
 Many violinists have switched to performing on the viola because there are more professional opportunities for viola players than violinists.
 Early music enthusiasts will be happy to know Tim plays a cello built in 1708 by Petrus Roman of Venice.
Header image: Avi Avital, courtesy of aviavital.com.