Sheet Music Review
The Piano Duet is a musical genre that I have explored too little with my students in the past, so a few years ago I decided to stock up on a few duet books. Finding excellent material for more advanced students was easy enough, given the wonderful works for “One Piano Four Hands” by such classical greats as Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Poulenc et al. But finding good material for beginners and intermediate players proved far more difficult.
Fast forward to 2016 and that gap in the market has been addressed by a succession of simply great publications over the last few years.
Here is my selection of some of the best, which I hope you will go ahead and explore for yourselves!
Delightfully Easy Piano Duets
Rosamund Conrad’s ‘Delightfully Easy Piano Duets for Beginners and Intermediate Players’ comprises two self-published volumes in landscape format, each containing 8 pieces. According to the composer, the pieces are written
“To inspire confidence in playing and reading music and to be enjoyed.”
The primo parts are all written within a five-note position, mostly C-G or D-A. The hands are in octaves, although Rosamund writes:
“Beginner’s parts can be played with both hands or just one.”
There are some obvious advantages to this flexibility. Firstly it means that the pieces can be played by pianists who are almost complete beginners, and secondly it makes the pieces ideal material for those students who appear for a lesson with one hand in a bandage!
The down-side of pieces written within a five-note shape is that there is less scope for melodic development, but Rosamund has done a fabulous job of making all these pieces musical and interesting. Here’s an example video, in which the composer and her student play one of my favourites from the first book, ‘Saloon Bar Blues’ :
The secondo parts are written at an “intermediate level”, so are easy enough for teachers to sight-read. One of the families I teach bought the book so that brother (intermediate, Grade 2) and sister (beginner, pre-Grade 1) can learn the pieces together, encouraging family music-making.
The pieces in both books have a contemporary freshness to them, and several include swing quavers in the secondo part. My only caveat here is that some are rather long: I would have prefered each piece to be one page, in keeping with solo repertoire at this level.
Book Two does not progress in difficulty from book one, but provides further pieces still in a five-note position, so this collection is really for those who want supplementary material or prefer the content.
The books themselves are presented in a no-frills way, with covers that nicely evoke tradition. They are sturdy, well produced, and the notation itself is suitable large for younger beginners.
All in all I would highly recommend having a look at the two books – I don’t think you will be disappointed!
Rayan’s Duet Book
June Armstrong is a prolific and very imaginative educational composer based in Ireland – I have previously recommended her collection ‘Stars: 14 Constellations for piano’.
‘Rayan’s Duet Book’ is a collection of five easy pieces dedicated to the composer’s grandchild. As with Rosamund Conrad’s books, the primo part sticks to a five note position. But while technically easy to accomplish, these pieces are rather more difficult. Hands mostly play in octaves, but not always, and the notation requires more advanced reading ability, including ledger lines and chords. However, no key signatures are included in the pupil part – accidentals are used instead.
The secondo parts are also rather more difficult here, closer perhaps to Grade 4-5 level, so the teacher might want to read through them before using the pieces in lessons.
The pieces are named after playing cards: Jack of Diamonds, Queen of Hearts, and so on. Although this such a slim volume, there is plenty here to enjoy, and a good range of contrasts.
According to June, the pieces are suitable as sight-reading material for intermediate players, which certainly makes sense. Here’s a short introduction to the pieces including excerpts from most of the book:
In common with all of June’s work, these pieces are a breath of fresh air, and once again I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Duets for Fun
‘Duets for Fun: Easy pieces to play together’ is part of a series from Schott Music which also includes duet books for violin, guitar, cello, flute and clarinet.
The piano book includes a great selection by Monika Twelsiek of 36 original pieces composed between the late 18th century and the present day.
The pieces here start at around Grade 1 but most are around Grades 2-4, and allowing for the sometimes more difficult secondo parts the collection could well last a student from around Grades 2-5.
A few of the classical pieces are arrangements, but of the period, so for example including Neefe’s arrangements of Mozart and Kirchner’s arrangement of Schumann’s famous Humming Song from the Album for the Young. The collection also includes three of Schubert’s evergreen Ländler arranged by Brahms, alongside duet compositions by Vanhal, Türk, Diabelli, Gurlitt, Arensky, Gretchmaninov and others.
The more modern age is represented by works that include Seiber’s Tango and Blues from his Easy Dances as well as music by composers as diverse as György Ligetti and jazzy John Kember. The contemporary roll call also includes Jürgen Moser, Eduard Pütz and Uwe Korn.
Christoph Hempel’s Eerie Cave Music has proved popular with students – a piece which incorporates partly graphic notation and improvised special effects at the piano. Mike Schoenmehl’s Ripples in the Water is another particularly beautiful and evocative piece.
The presentation is simple but great, with a bright attractive cover, sturdy binding, cleanly presented engraving on cream paper, and the high quality editing that one would expect from Schott Music. However, there is no CD or online recording for the collection.
I really like this book a lot. It is classy, fabulous value for money, and if you simply want one good, varied collection of predominantly classical duet pieces for intermediate players, look no further. This is it.
Pianoworks Duets 1 & 2
The Pianoworks series from Oxford University Press, written by Janet and Alan Bullard, has been hugely popular with my adult students, especially the excellent repertoire collections, Christmas collection and personal favourite ‘A Night at the Theatre’. Duets 1 & 2 were added to the series in 2012, and have quickly become another highlight of the series.
As one would expect from OUP, the publication is of the highest quality, with very clean engraving and presentation. Each piece includes a short footnote outlining its background, and there is a helpful introduction to duet playing at the start of the first collection. With 21 pieces in each book, they are great value for money, and there’s plenty to appeal.
A brilliant addition is the inclusion of a CD with each of the books, featuring recordings of both primo and secondo parts in isolation for practice purposes.
Duets 1 includes arrangements of folk tunes from around the world, including tunes from Norway, Scotland, Japan and the West Indies. There are also a number of original pieces by Alan Bullard. But the bulk of the material comprises arrangements of well-known popular classical pieces, including Offenbach’s Can-Can (Orpheus in the Underworld), Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, and Joplin’s The Entertainer. The book is suitable for players at around Grade 1-2 level.
Duets 2 continues this pattern. Here the classical hit tunes largely dominate, and there are many outstanding arrangements. Of the eight books under review, this is the one that’s full of the famous melodies that so appeal to those adults who love classical music and want to play their favourites. The level this time is around Grade 3.
As in the other Pianoworks books, Janet and Alan Bullard prove to be sympathetic writers for the instrument, and to have a particular gift for writing arrangements that are technically accessible while remaining true to the harmony and spirit of the originals.
This series as a whole is highly recommended for teenagers and adults, and Duets 2 in particular is frequently in use in my studio. Excellent!
‘Across EUROPE: 12 Witty Folk Song Arrangements for Piano Duet’ is the delicious concoction of German composer and writer Luis Zett (b.1945).
Published by Edition Breitkopf this is an engaging offering with simple but lovely presentation and beautiful music engraving throughout.
According to Zett:
“Europe is a continent with many different national and regional cultures. In this respect, it has its own multicultural spectrum, in which also the traditional “folksy” musical styles are of particular importance.
“Aimed at players with intermediate skill level, the present pieces are set in a way that they are, above all, fun to play – no matter if played in a performing situation or privately.
“With the hope to foster mutual appreciation among European nationalities, I wish you lots of fun with this multicultural musical experience.”
The 12 folk songs originate in Hungary, France, Sweden, Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Finland, Spain, Romania, Scotland, Macedonia, and a Yiddish melody from Eastern Europe. A useful Commentary on the 12 pieces, written by the composer in German, is provided at the back of the book, including an English translation. Uniquely among the books reviewed here, the two parts are offered in long score format, rather than primo and secondo parts appearing on opposite pages.
The folk melodies are set as duets in styles whose wit occasionally veers towards pastiche and stereotype, but always remains on the side of invention, amusement, and good taste. The book as a whole certainly provides a timely reminder of the wonderfully diverse culture and personality of our great continent.
I enjoyed reading through these pieces with an adult Grade 8 student, and would happily set them for students around Grades 4-6 level. I am certain that players of all ages with thoroughly enjoy the whole collection!
That said, the price of the volume may seem a little eye-watering (and oddly precise) at €21.29, especially given that following the recent Brexit vote the exchange rate pushes the UK price to £17.95 (even on Amazon at present it is £15.00). And there is no recording, included or otherwise, which is a pity.
Fairyland in Treble
Nikolas Sideris is both the man behind independent publisher Editions Musica Ferrum and one of its leading composers. His duet book ‘Fairyland in Treble’ is prefaced with the following explanation:
“This collection of eleven duets is based on music composed over the past eight years, primarily for use in computer game soundtracks and other media. Over the years, they have evolved and adapted to become teacher / student duets.”
The book itself is, without question, one of the most beautifully presented music publications I have ever come across. The cover artwork by Marcus Krupa is simply stunning, and a sense of high quality prevails throughout the whole score. The music notation is engraved to the same ultra-high standard of all Editions Musica Ferrum publications, and the book produced using only the best quality materials.
All of the teacher parts are available as free audio recordings online. which the student can download and play along to – an excellent additional benefit!
There’s also a nicely filmed recording featuring the composer performing the whole collection alongside piano teacher Miriam Kornberg – have a listen and discover for yourself how wonderful these pieces are:
Each of the eleven pieces is preceded by a short story, in the style of a classic fairytale, written by Nefeli Tsipouridi. These stories are a pleasure to read, in and of themselves, but also provide a wonderfully imaginative framework in which the pieces themselves can be understood and interpreted.
The level of the pieces starts at perhaps around Grade 2, moving towards grade 5, meaning that this book is particularly suitable for younger students who are progressing quickly towards intermediate level.
And it’s a book that I believe pupils will thoroughly enjoy and look forward to coming back to as a “treat” in between their other learning. The pieces have an immediacy of intent, an easy contemporary language, and an emotional pull that is simply irresistible.
While I have no hesitation in recommending all eight of the publications in this roundup, I must say that this book stands out as being VERY special indeed. It’s truly an essential purchase.
Between them, these eight books really cover all bases – offering material suitable for the youngest beginner right through to enthusiastic adult learners, and including a fabulous range of musical styles to suit all tastes.
I began by admitting that the piano duet is a musical genre that I have explored too little with my students. That is rapidly changing thanks to these brilliant resources, and I’m planning that one of my student concerts in the coming year will be devoted to duet playing.
And I guess that is the best recommendation I can give!