Harvey Dagul and Isabel Beyer are a duet who play along with the St Albans Symphony Orchestra. –
Above recording – Carl Czerny – Variations Brillantes on Bellini’s ‘I Montecchi e i Capuleti’ Op.295 (for six hands)- Played by Isabel Beyer, Guy & Harvey Dagul, 1985
From the Herts Advertiser –
PIANO duo Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul are giving their annual charity concert at St Stephen’s Church Hall in St Albans this Sunday, January 20, 2013. The local couple, who recently celebrated 61 years of professional piano-duet playing in this country and abroad, will be performing in aid of the St Albans Fund for the Future which supports many local community groups.
The concert at the church in Watling Street is entitled Four Hands in Harmony and comprises light-hearted piano duets for the whole family.
It begins at 3pm and tickets, which include admission and refreshments, are £12.50 for adults with children free. They can be obtained from John Peters on 01727 860084, firstname.lastname@example.org or at the door.
From the Music Vision –
A portrait of piano duettists Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul,
by BILL NEWMAN
I first met the husband and wife duo Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul at one of those special functions at the Austrian Institute in London. It was a quite unexpected pleasure for me as I, as usual, was feeling a trifle fed up, slightly sorry for myself at the lack of enthusiasm shown by my editor. He was insisting on high grade treatment on behalf of today’s international artists with their world-wide coverage, while I was merrily ignoring him to seek out extra support and recognition for those music makers I personally believed in, a good number of whom I considered superior on all counts.
In the richly fertile period of broadcasting — roughly the mid 1950s through to the mid 80s — the BBC Third Programme, before it became Radio 3, shone out like some beacon of prominence towards widening cultural interest in the Arts generally, commanding sincere respect in place of today’s endless hype by aiming to convey the truth of its opinions and decision makings, what programmes to feature and how best to choose the ideal performers. Gradually, a tremendous girth and spread of events resulted, much of which found agreement with my own personal desires, quests for excellence and emotional slants.
Suddenly I found myself tuning in to four hands on one grand piano, the like of which I hadn’t enjoyed so much since the two-piano specialists Bartlett and Robertson, the Trimble Sisters or Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick. Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul offered one additional — and invaluable — incentive to their overall programmes which immediately caught the listeners’ attention. They labelled it ‘Inviting you to Share the Treasures of the Piano Duet Repertoire with a selection of pieces for your lasting enjoyment’, and if you regard this as rather corny, since 1950 when they met as students at the Royal Academy of Music, they have researched a huge repertoire of forgotten and neglected music to delight audiences in Britain, France, Belgium and the United States. Another member of their family is their son, Guy — also a composer — who occasionally takes his place on the stool between his father and mother to perform works for six hands by Carl Czerny.
Harvey collected me by car outside St Albans Station. ‘I find this a most important and necessary means of getting anywhere on time since I broke my leg’ he communicated, showing me the sites of the cathedral town with its expanse of trees and hedgerows. Their house itself is bathed in sunlight, linking downstairs lounge, kitchen, and back garden with its marvellous green vegetables and flowering shrubs showing at their very finest in full bloom. Somehow, I envisaged knowing it already, feeling completely at home as I sat down to scoff some particularly appetising home-made cake!
Harvey (HD) did most of the talking — and he is fascinating to just listen to — but of equal importance are Isabel (IB)’s elucidatory comments and verification of statements. You will quickly grasp the format as we proceed! Harvey came to the Academy in 1949; Isabel in 1950.
Harvey Dagul: A couple of years ago, we celebrated fifty years of presenting concerts together.
Isabel Beyer: For what it is worth, we are the longest performing duo in the entire world.
Harvey Dagul: The first piece we played was a transcription of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.
Bill Newman: How do you go about matching each other’s tone, style and concept?
IB: First of all, our playing is completely different. We don’t have the same ideas, so we argue, but this happens with String Quartets. But as we play … we balance with each other.
BN: Is it the fact that the longer you have known each other, the more happy you become?
HD: Happy is the wrong word in this context. We compromise. It depends on the context of the argument, one way or another. Matters of philosophy … and our attitudes towards music didn’t occur to us when we were younger. We just made a pleasant sound, but never thought in high level terms.
IB: But we did; certainly in those Mozart and Schubert Sonatas!
HD: … OK — but I am really talking about those first recitals, after we had first met! They were a fun thing, but we did a North London competition where one of the adjudicators said there was a wonderful romantic tension between the two players. Schumann’s Andante and Variations. And that was when we first started to find we were getting serious. We did a few concerts at the Academy — the first was 8 November 1951, which included a Mozart Sonata.
HD: I had to go into the Army for a couple of years. Afterwards, I had to earn a living and buy a house. I went into teaching and did vocal work in a factory and schools. We didn’t have time to practise, and Isabel was practically teaching full time. This lasted for two and half years, and at first I worked at Augeners Music Shop in London. Then I saw this job advertised in the factory at the incredible sum of eight pounds per week. So, I bought a house in the area, and we settled down to earning a living, having children.
IB: We did the BBC Audition.
HD: Yes, we now found we had more time to practise, and we actually passed our first, then second audition. We were given our first concert in 1958.
IB: John Manduell, Principal of the Academy became our first BBC producer.
HD: He gave us a couple of concerts, and I was a Junior Teacher at that time. They stuck this radio up in the school, and all the kids had to listen to it. Later, we did live concerts from the Camden Theatre, which the BBC took over. I had to bring my mother home to look after the kids, then we had to go on my motorbike in the rain to the hall. I remember distinctly that afterwards we went into a café and were both in tears — it was so depressing.
IB: It was terrible, playing with nobody there. Since then, we didn’t mind, and have got used to that. Then, we did a lot of concerts at Pebble Mill. We had the same lighting technicians on each occasion. We quite enjoyed them, and they always remembered us.
IB: About this time, we met Paul Hamburger. He was lovely man, and before he died he gave us some scores with his writing on them.
BN: Hamburger broadcast with his partner Liza Fuchsova in piano duets, and was accompanist to several singers and instrumentalists.
HD: He was the person who introduced me to Moszkowski’s music, which I didn’t know at the time. I thought it was most wonderful, and we went to him for a few lessons.
IB: He would tell us that there were no such things as second rate composers or performers. As duettists we had to do it all. You can turn them into marvellous music.
BN: Today, everyone is made out to be marvellous.
IB: We’ll see!
HD: The great thing about music is its charm. Much of it is neglected, like Czerny, which is also wonderful. Yet no one has heard it, and nobody mentions the Sonatas for solo piano, the concertos, the duets — of which he wrote far more than Schubert.
BN: The same with Moscheles.
HD: Yes! Moscheles wrote a lot of transcriptions and arrangements. We play the Grand Duo on Themes by Weber, and we found out that it became a piece for violin and piano, and a work for orchestra, also for other combinations.
IB: Debussy and Ravel have both done this, and it is one way of ensuring that their music is played.
HD: I think this was essential in their day. The Czerny and Schubert works we know were originally for duet, and this I think gives their music that something extra. We have been doing concerts locally, and we used to perform six a year trying not to repeat a single work. We did this for about twenty years, but then we found that we didn’t have time to feed in new pieces.
IB: Also, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel.
HD: My eyesight wasn’t as good as it used to be and I couldn’t learn things so quickly, and we discovered we were getting older.
IB: Yes, we may be getting on in years!
HD: We are just about to continue our new series at the Maltings Arts Theatre. Before this in 1975, we did almost every duet that Schubert wrote in four weekly series of concerts at London’s Purcell Room. That was devastating! In the year before, we approached the Vicar locally and asked whether we could try them out beforehand during the lunch hour. He agreed, and people came and ate their sandwiches. Apples, crisps and celery were banned, but coffee allowed. So, we were almost ready, but when we came to drive the car to the Purcell Room the following year, there and back, we became depressed.
IB: We started to have arguments over everything!
HD: You see, when you have duos for violin and piano, clarinet and piano, or even a string quartet, there is usually one person who has the final decision. With a string quartet, you have a leader, and when you have a violin and viola together, the lower string instrument or the other one assumes control. But with two instruments the same, you don’t have a leader! It’s very democratic, and you really have to agree on every tiny thing to the millisecond. Without that agreement, there are constant fallings out.
BN: In Schubert’s music, the Viennese lilt and nuance in the phrasing, touch, singing line and overall style, even the pauses and silences, require complete mastery.
HD: Not in our case. With her beside me, she will follow exactly what I do, and where she leads, I will follow her. We don’t have to think about it. The more conscious you are of this, you have to bear in mind that I still shock people by telling them that we only rehearse a minimal amount. There are several reasons: One, is posturpathic. When you are playing duets, the spine is permanently twisted. You are leaning over, or away, and not in a good piano playing position, so the longer you are doing this, the more physical damage you incur. The more you rehearse, the less spontaneous you become, and you don’t rehearse nuances. You will say: ‘Something needs to be done here’ and we will do it. But we never rehearse it!
IB: When Judi Dench chose Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto for Private Passions, you listened to the piano’s opening phrase. That’s something you don’t rehearse, it comes straight from the head.
HD: The late Peter Stadlen reviewing one of our Schubert concerts wrote: ‘Although they are playing hausmusik, every so often they step over the border into a spiritual world.’ That’s the way we feel about it. Some of it is rum-ti-tum, but every so often the composer transports you across that border. We can both feel it coming.
BN: The problem with the younger generation player is that he is not aware of this. He plays fast and loud, even allowing all the notes to sound in their correct places, but at the end of the day the performance is meaningless.
HD: They look on passagework as passagework, but I Iook on it as decorated melody which has its own patterns and sensitivities.
BN: Then there is the important range of harmonies and counterpoint writing in the middle register.
HD: Ah … that is where Isabel’s right hand is good, because she is very expressive …
IB: You don’t usually say that!
HD: I know my partner; you see I can’t do much walking and she has done all the work in the house! This is exceptional …
IB: Oh, he’s being nice to me now!
HD: Her right hand is the viola part, clarinet or the French horn. You have to respond to it, and with Schubert you don’t need urging — it is there in the music. After performing other composers, it is like coming back home to Schubert. There is something wonderful about it.
BN: You can assess how much expression to give, and how to phrase the music in the absence of score markings.
HD: Yes — there are minimal markings throughout. But you can always work these out yourself; even do some necessary editing. Professors argue endlessly whether diminuendo or decrescendo means getting softer; others regard decrescendo as becoming softer and slower. So, it means that half the time you don’t know what you are meant to be doing?
BN: Some say that his piano music is unpianistic?
HD: There was a period in the 20s and 30s when those pianists who didn’t like to play Schubert would state that his piano writing was not pianistic. But Schubert was a fabulous pianist — he played The Erl King about ten times as a young man.
IB: But everyone knew that he was so musical!
HD: I have heard Alfred Brendel describe his music as beautifully pianistic. You just have to take the trouble and learn a new technique.
BN: At one time, I thought that Brendel altered Schubert’s accepted dynamics to suit his own conception.
HD: In that case I wouldn’t agree with you, because his decision was based on enormous research. If any pianist completely distorted the musical dynamics you would switch off, or walk out of the hall.
BN: Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda in their prime, even the American Frank Glazer in the 1950s, each had their personal thoughts on Schubert dynamics.
IB: And Schubert’s piano music wasn’t that popular then!
HD: When we were students, Debussy and Hindemith were regarded as moderns, and Bartók Quartets performed at the Conway Hall had members of the audience laughing and walking out. Lesser-known Schubert symphonies were rarely performed.
BN: Schoenberg and Webern were performed in Vienna, but rarely elsewhere.
HD: Not necessarily so.
BN: But did audiences understand their music?
HD: Do they really understand Schubert? Who knows what you understand when you listen to music?
BN: This is always an interesting topic. Do audiences conjure up their own pictorial impression of what the performance conveys to them?
HD: Hm … for this reason I would prefer performing to audiences of non-musicians.
BN: Do you agree with that?
IB: Not necessarily. I would prefer having someone in the audience who knows what they are talking about. I certainly play better realizing that.
BN: From a critical listener’s viewpoint, I need to be sympathetic to the artists’ overall view of the music, preferably beforehand.
HD: Whenever we come onto the platform, I can immediately detect the attitude of the audience towards us.
IB: I can always feel it.
HD: Especially those who are non-musical. They listen to it in a different way to the musicians who are playing it.
IB: We, the musicians, analyse the music, and criticise each other’s playing.
HD: It is the same with painting. The non-painter’s viewpoint, as opposed to the professional painter with his ideas of composition and perspective.
IB: It’s the same with concertgoing. I dislike piano recitals, and prefer orchestral and choral music.
BN: In my years in the record business — with the emphasis on the product, not the music itself — the aim to sell thousands of discs tended to distort my musical attitude. Likewise, so-called expert opinions in magazines, on broadcasts and television. Too much chitchat going on.
HD: It’s all too available, and I can’t see a way out.
IB: The Last Night of the Proms with all those closeups of silly promenaders wearing such stupid clothes. On television they all look so old. They used to have young audiences; where are they?
HD: It’s all very sad. And they wait for a really quiet place to come along, before someone will suddenly shout out ‘Bravo!’ It ruins the concentration.
BN: Not to mention applauding between every movement. We were all young once but were we quite so badly behaved?
HD: I wouldn’t dare to be.
HD: When we first started making long play records, we had a little commitee of four. The man was quite a good artist, and his wife was good commercially. He would paint the pictures for the front cover, but I had to get rid of him as he never produced the work on time. Then I was told by a Canadian company that they would like to sell our records, but that our covers were simply not commercial. We never considered this, but just thought about making records. Something glowing, silly — to draw the eye. You put all your life, all your dedication into making the recording, and all it ends up as is an object of no intrinsic value; just an artifact stacked high in quantity on the factory floor. All the original feeling that went into it, is lost.
BN: I talked about my personal experiences and knowledge of certain artists’ ‘covering their tracks’ — ‘improving’ the recorded performance by using the tricks of editing.
HD: I know only too well. Recording Schubert’s F minor Fantasy — which is particularly difficult — we aimed at two complete takes. We made a tape that had a few mistakes, so another take was made and we noticed a further two errors. After more corrections, we left it with the producer to effect a compromise after comparing with previous efforts. Twenty years before, we played the piece too fast, but experience has taught us otherwise. According to the mood of the moment, sometimes what we thought about an earlier performance turns out to be rather good, instead.
BN: Switching from one composer’s works to others might be problematic in concert.
IB: We don’t think about it, but just get on with performing the programme.
BN: But how do you prepare new repertoire?
IB: Each artist rehearses on their own, and gathers new ideas in the process. Then they meet up and try and find out what has happened.
HD: This is fine, but rehearsing on your own you imagine the other part, which is subservient (naughty!) … When we meet up, we may find things dreadfully wrong, and this is no good. Isabel starts by preparing her interpretation. I don’t, but prefer to leave it until it gradually dawns on me. She might argue that it should be slower here; and I will disagree. Isabel also likes slowing down the end of the phrase. Again, I don’t — but like to keep the flow over the phrase. If I slow down at all, it will be near the end.
IB: According to what we both want, it happens anyway. It becomes a habit.
BN: In Schubert’s music with its accents, emphases, rubato slowings and so on, should these occur at the beginning, middle or end of the phrase?
HD: Listen to your question, and you will realise that you emphasized all sorts of different words. There was no one place where they actually became emphasized, and some people believe that the first beat of a musical bar is the point of emphasis. I avoid this like the plague because it starts to become metrical, and I do everything I can to bend the phrase so that the climax is always at some other point. In every phrase you are allowed one accent.
BN: This is not a form of thought process, but more an instinctive thing.
IB: It’s like accompanying a singer, and feeling the way they phrase the musical line.
HD: The composer Richard Rodney Bennett said of another pianist: ‘He plays the piano as if he knows the words’, which means that he is emphasizing the melody as if there are words.
IB: Like Ashkenazy, when he makes the piano sing at the start of Rachmaninov 3.
HD: Paul Hamburger used to take phrases and describe them as ‘down-shape’. You play the melody to the top, then proceed down again in a single movement. That’s all very well, but that can also be a mannerism as well. So, one has to find a new way of phrasing, and I can remember breaking my neck during the final movement of Mozart’s C major Sonata, and trying to find new ways of playing six repetitions of the same phrase.
BN: Surely, this is also governed by the way you vary the left-hand accompaniment?
HD: Yes, but you might resort to make the first phrase weaker, the second stronger — or the other way round — perhaps altering the pace slightly. You have to be resourceful and interesting at the same time. Then, your partner picks it up — you decorate the same way, it provides spontaneity, and it’s part of the fun.
BN: Recordings can result in postmortems.
HD: You must realize there is a big difference in listening to your own playing in performance, then re-hearing the same thing when it is played back. After sessions, we found we couldn’t bear to listen for one month; and had no desire to edit until 2-3 months had elapsed.
BN: Duo-pianists Nettle and Markham told me that the same thing happened after their Gershwin recording. The intricacy of the fingerwork, cross rhythms, accents and ensemble caused much concern, particularly with David Nettle, the last pupil of the late Cyril Smith who instilled self-criticism with a purpose into all his students.
HD: Cyril Smith maintained that he always practised six hours a day, and if — at the end of the year — he could play to perfection by 25 per cent, he was more than happy. (Quoted from his book Duet for 4 Hands.)
HD: Then there is the non-intellectual pianist, like Shura Cherkassky, who professed no knowledge or awareness that a number of Liszt arrangements were from arias and choruses in grand opera. In some instances — i e Albeniz’ Tango, Chopin’s Fourth Ballade — being non-intellectual showed off his marvellous playing to distinct advantage.
BN: He had this sense of entertaining his audiences, abandoning the serious side of music to reveal the charm and essence of what many regard as trivia.
HD: And there is a place for it. It is only listening to the second rate that one can begin to appreciate the first rate. And it is only because of humour that we have tragedy. Shakespeare knew that. I am always amazed, and somewhat horrified when most often you have a wonderful pianist who sits down and performs Beethoven or Chopin quite marvellously, and the audience applauds nicely. Then he comes back and romps his way through some flashy virtuoso number, and they all stand up and cheer madly, shouting their heads off. I find this very depressing. It is as if the listeners have been worked into a frenzy, without appreciating the really good qualities of the rest of the programme. We too have our rabble rousers. Billy Mayerl’s Marigold, which they absolutely love.
HD: We found that all our producers left the BBC.
IB: They all died.
BN: But now there is room for every kind of music.
HD: The feedback is enormous, and it all requires representation.
BN: Do I sense you are both rather old fashioned in your attititudes?
HD: I am, but Isobel is more up to date! I spend my day shouting at the radio. John Humphries being rude and arrogant to the people we voted into office. Treats them like fair game, and it sets a standard of bad manners in conversation and discussion. And when I listen to somebody who just carries on speaking, like the Deputy Prime Minister, who is very good at it — I want to hit him over the head and say ‘shut up’! The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the same, but at least he insists on getting himself heard. The worst interviewer of the lot is Desert Island Discs‘ Sue Lawley. The best is Michael Berkeley with his Private Passions.
IB: You don’t understand about radio! They have a carefully alloted time to get their points across, and have to keep to it. Otherwise they would go rambling off like you do!
HD: They can ramble interestingly about a number of topics, but have no proper agenda. More often they peter out before getting into their stride.
Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul Play French Piano Duets
Claude Debussy (Composer), Maurice Ravel (Composer), Paul Ladmirault (Composer), Charles Koechlin (Composer), Isabel Beyer (Performer), Harvey Dagul (Performer) Format: Audio CD