The Brandenburg Duets

“Sharing the piano bench with a partner is as intimate a musical relationship as it gets,” describes Eleonor Bindman her passion that led her to her latest project.

“When I perform a composition, the orchestral aspect is always what inspires me most,” she says. And playing four-hand at the piano, in a partnership feels like it doubles the inspiration.”

photo credit: ©Masataka Suemitsu

Eleonor Bindman and Jenny Lin

In 2014, Eleonor Bindman was scouting materials for a four-hand piano duet she was gearing up to perform as part of a Bach concert series at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. She was most interested in the Brandenburg Concertos, but the pianist and composer/arranger, an avid Bach player was not satisfied with what she found: the only prominent existing transcription of the collection for two pianos, by Max Reger. Inspired, Bindman began her examination, rearranging the first concerto’s transcription – but that quickly left her wanting to conquer the whole project. The result is a monumental achievement that conveys the orchestral density and unique character of each of the original works in a modern arrangement – The Brandenburg Duets.

Bach’s original Brandenburg Concertos, composed over several years for various solo instrument groupings, and was originally presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. Max Reger’s 1905/6 transcription for two pianos was interesting, according to Bindman, but lacked in structural balance for the two performers and authoritative answers to some of the individual nuances of each of the original concerto compositions.

“Attempting to play the Reger version, resulted in the struggle of one performer to penetrate the densely arranged material of tangled treble notes, while the bass player plodded through an uneventful path,” Bindman explains. She deemed an equal partnership in a piano-duet performance necessary, and to achieve that, embellishing the existing manuscript was not enough; Bindman was looking to achieve a complete overhaul with a fresh perspective.

“Doubling the cello/base part in octaves, as Reger did, made no sense because it kept both hands of the Secondo occupied and resulted in excessively bottom-heavy sonorities. Likewise, throwing all of the treble parts together in the Primo – violin, violas, oboes solo French horns, flutes or trumpet plus the harpsichord –rendered the part unplayable at any decent tempo and hid the counterpoint in clusters of chords,” she says.

A new score for the concerto, geared to the baroque polyphony, with typically four, clearly distinguishable voices, demanded some omissions of the many clusters of voices, to gain more clarity. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra’s ‘chamber’ sound, served as point of reference for Bindman’s newly textured hierarchy of the voices in its finalized newly achieved version, which projects clarity, while honoring the elegance of the original score.

The translation of a concerto score for two pianists always bears the complexity of rivalry, of two instruments of the same sonority.  It is much less of an intricate task to distinguish differing instruments. So to introduce a more variant sound production within a two-piano version, Bindman wrote differing expressive lines for both players. Particular modifications of the two- piano repertoire, like crossing hands, makes for an interesting audible vitality of blending and differentiating voices, while using the modern piano’s full range of a pianistic orchestration. In order to achieve a full and interesting sounding score, Bindman did not hesitate to lose some of the original score’s rudiments.

She also decided to modify certain sequences, based on their key settings and harmonic ranges, in order to enhance the overall listening experience. The result adds greatly to the two-piano repertoire, which thrives as a four-hand performance –no orchestra necessary.

Even before this Bach transcription, Bindman had always felt drawn to making repertoire written for other instruments, her own as a pianist and in particular for piano duo. Her debut recording of Three Works by Modest Mussorgsky, includes her transcription of his A night On Bald Mountain. This arrangement as well as some original piano works for children in a collective titled: An American Calendar has been published by Carl Fisher. Some of her existing transcriptions are not published as yet like that of a waltz, from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin.

Bindman started to enjoy four-hand playing early on with her longtime teacher Vladimir Feltsman. In collaboration with pianist Susan Sobolewski, Bindman’s  Duo Vivace released Out of the Blue, with two-piano and four- hand arrangements of works by Gustav Holst, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin. “When I delve into the work of a composer, I am often inspired by works outside the existing piano repertoire,” says Bindman. “The piano has the potential of being such a symphonic sounding instrument; it can reproduce the sound of the whole orchestra and I simply did not want to feel held back from playing a piece I loved, because it was not written for the piano. In the 1800s it was the usual thing. Everyone had a piano. And while it was really time consuming; transcriptions were born out of that same frustration. Now technology has changed so tremendously, and has made everything much more accessible. When I started my first transcription in the early nineties, I had to still write it down with pen and paper and have someone transfer it into Finale, the computer program. “ photo credit: ©Masataka Suemitsu

Presently Bindman is teaching a group of enthusiastic adult students, whose ambitions she greatly admires and supports. It only makes sense to her to transfer her experiences with four-hand playing to her new audience of amateur musicians, for whom a satisfactory repertoire seems so much more limited to find: “Its music making for the soul,” she says, and “I feel a lot of four – hand music is inherently much easier to manage, than solo repertoire. It’s a great pleasure to help them achieve their desires, and the experience with someone at your side is very special. The Brandenburg duet version now with the four-hand score, gives it a new dimension, fulfilling a demand for this new market.” Her goal after its completion is the publication of the Brandenburg Duets for the upcoming anniversary of the concertos in 2021.

Bindman shares a long professional history with Jenny Lin, her duo partner on the recording. They had met at the Jose Iturbi International Piano Competition, but more importantly were part of the same musical social circles in New York City. Lin, who has made a name for herself as a major voice in the contemporary scene was excited about the project from the get go:” Yes it’s true I am playing a lot of contemporary repertoire, but also like to mix and match old and new, experimenting with some classical in conjunction with contemporary works, and who says no to Bach?” she volunteers. Lin did not previously play four hands though; the Brandenburg Duets established her fist professional project and recording as a piano duet. “It’s a challenge,” she admits, “you have to learn another person’s habits, but we succeeded beautifully and that’s because Eleonor had such a very clear idea of what she wanted to achieve,” she explains.

Bindman had been working on the project for two years, by the time Lin came on board but felt she brought a special edge to the endeavor. She also credits “the greatest team of engineers at the famous Sono Luminus Studio in Virginia, where we recorded,” says Bindman. And Lin agrees: “Working with the best recording studio in the country, was an amazing experience. When we started out, it was a little bit of a work in progress; the score had to be adjusted and edited a bit along the way, mostly for practical advantages. This entailed redistributing some of the parts and of course each time there is a change – you have to learn that. Some of these readjustments had to happen to make the score more accessible and that’s a good thing, of course. It was a great project and I am glad to have been involved with it and will do anything Eleonor needs me to do, to further support her in this amazing endeavor.”

The Brandenburg Duets were completed and recorded in 2017 and released by Naxos Records on their Grand Piano label, in March of 2018.

Watch the trailer of a practice session with Jenny Lin and Eleonor Bindman here.

This post was sponsored by Jonathan Eifert, PR. Jonathaneifert.com