Life & Culture

Four pianos playing in harmony

It’s rare to see more than one pianist on stage together, but an Israeli ensemble does just that


If one grand piano can make a thrilling sound, just imagine two, three or even four of them together. Yet given the fearsome logistics of obtaining, moving and tuning several of these giant beasts for one event, it’s a rare treat to hear such an ensemble live on stage.

This, however, is the mission of MultiPiano, founded by the pianist, teacher and general musical visionary Tomer Lev, who is performing with his three colleagues at London’s Cadogan Hall on April 14. Lev was the co-founder of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University; under these auspices MultiPiano came into being in 2011 and has been made possible ever since.

Its endeavours include the resuscitation and recording of rarities for multiple pianos and orchestra by Mozart and Mendelssohn, arranged in collaboration with Lev’s own teacher, Ignaz Moscheles. These works take centre stage in the London concert. 

Like many of the best ideas, it all began quite by accident. “I was asked to go to Taiwan to perform and give masterclasses,” Lev says on a video call from Tel Aviv, “and they suggested that I could bring two of my advanced students with me. I thought it would not be so interesting simply to have each of us perform in turn, so I suggested we do something a little bit different.

“We were three zealous pianists; the other two were advanced artists in their own rights, younger colleagues rather than students; and we created a programme that explores the piano from every possible angle. Each of us played solo and then we built up: two hands, four hands, six hands. We called the programme ‘MultiPiano’. Our hosts were so enthusiastic about it that we ended up doing a whole tour of Taiwan.”

The project grew from there. “We aim to blend together and become an ensemble with one sound,” says Lev, “in the same way that a string quartet aims to become one instrument with 16 strings.” He finds performing with his students, present or former, a particular joy: “It’s like working with your kids,” he says affectionately. “It’s like a family reunion on stage, every time.”
They must be doing something right: a video of them performing a Vivaldi quadruple concerto has clocked nearly ten million views across YouTube and other social-media channels, while their recording of Mozart’s complete “multipiano” concertos on the Hyperion label was named Best Classical Recording of 2021 by Scala Radio. Their second album, on Naxos with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, presented world premiere recordings of works by Shostakovich, Frank Martin and Aryeh Levanon; and they have been touring all over the globe, including to North and South America and, four times, to the Far East.

The ensemble’s membership inevitably evolves over time. “At the beginning I cherry-picked the students who were artistically ready for this project,” says Lev. “Then, of course, some of them travelled, started new lives and wanted to focus on their own careers, so there was a bit of rotation.” The ensemble’s second member, Berenika Glixman, has been there alongside Lev “since day one”. “Our current chair number three has been with us for nearly nine years and the fourth is usually a current student of mine; usually two rotate because they’re both very busy, they’re entering international competitions and I don’t want to interfere with their solo work.”

At Cadogan Hall, with the English Chamber Orchestra directed by Stephanie Gonley, they perform Lev’s completion of Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro for two pianos and orchestra, the Mendelssohn-Moscheles Fantaisie brillante & Variations and Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos. The Mendelssohn-Moscheles has never been heard live in the UK before; it was discovered in the archives of Anton Rubinstein, the St Petersburg Conservatory’s founder, as recently as 2009, the year of Mendelssohn’s bicentenary.

Moscheles, a much admired pianist who lived for a while in London, was among those who helped bring Mendelssohn to England for several sensationally successful concert tours. “They had the bond of being the two Jewish piano virtuosos of the time,” Lev points out. The piece is contemporaneous with some of the composer’s most enduringly popular works, including the Hebrides Overture and Italian Symphony, and it gives its performers a tremendous workout at the keyboards.

The Larghetto & Allegro involved considerable detective work on Lev’s part, as well as his skill as a composer in adding idiomatic passages, since Mozart had left the piece unfinished. Other researchers have made their own completions — notably Robert Levin and Paul Badura-Skoda — but Lev was the only one who suspected that the work was probably intended to involve an orchestra and therefore included one in his version.

A less salubrious history, however, lies behind the Concerto for Three Pianos. “Mozart wrote it for the Lodron family, Salzburg’s main patrons of the arts,” Lev relates, “to be played by Mrs Lodron and two of her daughters. Mozart, who liked to tailor his music to the person who would perform it, was disappointed to find that one daughter was a much less competent pianist than her mother and sister. He made her part minimal and in one letter referred to her, rather unfortunately, as ‘the bloody cow’. Ever since, this concerto has been neglected because nobody wanted to play the ‘cow’! So we rotate this part: in every movement someone different plays it and I ask the audience to guess who is doing the ‘cow’ each time. They seem to love that, and it makes the listening a bit more spicy.

“The classical music world is often accused of being conventional, repeating itself and not looking for new perspectives,” Lev says. “But MultiPiano helps to bring in the missing element of fresh angles. For me, it’s great to use all the experience that I’ve had as a composer, pianist, teacher and researcher. When we go on stage, I feel fortunate to combine all those elements. That’s what gives me the ‘flame’ to carry on.”

MultiPiano performs with the English Chamber Orchestra directed by Stephanie Gonley at Cadogan Hall, London, on April 14

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