Four-Handed Synergy: An Interview with the Dena Piano Duo
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Written by James A. Altena   
Sunday, 04 August 2013

Four-Handed Synergy: An Interview with the Dena Piano Duo

The Dena Piano Duo, founded in 2006, is a collaboration between teacher Heide Görtz and her onetime pupil Tina Margareta Nilssen. A pupil of the renowned German pianist Conrad Hansen, Görtz first taught at academies in Hamburg and Cologne before moving on to her present position in 1990 as a professor of piano and piano teaching at the Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) in Berlin. She was also for many years the deputy director of the Kurt-Singer-Institut für Musikergesundheit (Kurt Singer Institute for Musicians’ Health) in Berlin, where she specializes in the field of music physiology; she also offers master classes in the Goertz Method of physical health for musicians throughout Europe. Nilssen first graduated from the Barratt Due Institute in 2001 and, after studies with Görtz and other teachers, completed her postgraduate performance degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo in 2005. In addition to her work as a solo concert recitalist and Lieder accompanist, she holds a degree as a massage therapist and likewise gives master classes in the Goertz Method and Timani technique. Recently both artists took time out of their respective schedules to answer questions for this interview.

What led the two of you to decide to form a piano duo?

Heide: In the beginning of the year 2006, the Edvard Grieg Research Unit at the University of the Arts in Berlin had an opening ceremony. I was asked to play at this event, and I asked Tina, who had just played her exam in Oslo, if she wanted to join me playing the Mozart-Grieg sonata for two pianos in C Minor. We had tremendous fun playing together, as we felt an instant communication, both personally and in our musical and technical approach. Consequently, six months later, we found ourselves in the beautiful Sofienberg Church in Oslo, recording all four Mozart-Grieg sonatas with one of Norway’s best record companies, 2L.

Have you completely set aside, at least for now, concertizing as solo recitalists and Lieder accompanists to pursue concertizing as a duo?

Heide: No, we play everything that draws our interest. In every case, it all boils down to playing our best at the piano with whatever music is present before us. But it is simply an overwhelmingly enjoyable feeling to dive into the sound of two pianos and the sense of expanded musicality that gives us. Playing every note with absolute synchronization, while at the very same time preserving our individuality, is the utmost playing experience.

What do you find to be the major difficulties in making a piano duo a success, both in terms of external factors (e.g., booking concerts) and internal dynamics (choice of repertoire, differences in interpretation, etc.)?

Tina: The most difficult aspect of booking concerts is the availability of two good grand pianos in the various concert halls. Sometimes it requires hiring an additional grand piano, which means extra expenses for the concert hall, so it is easier for them to book other ensembles instead. Other challenges are that the constellation is a lesser known one, and therefore people are not aware of all the great music that can be played by a piano duo, and they don’t know how exciting it can sound when played at a high level.

As for internal dynamics, a piano duo is very challenging in that it requires performing with both great accuracy and flexibility at once. Because of the directness of sound and touch in a piano, it demands intense communication—breathing together, similarity in performance technique, and integration between the two. Both Heide and I love this challenge, as we both have high standards for the quality of our presence and sound when performing. We know each other well after seven years of cooperation, which creates a foundation for improvising freely with varieties of sound, phrasing, and spontaneous playfulness in timing.

How do you go about selecting repertoire to perform? Do you have a special fondness for any particular composers or the music of any specific eras or national cultures?

Heide: Due to our close cooperation with the Edvard Grieg Research Unit, our focus naturally has been on the music of Grieg. We have concentrated our selection of music upon him, his friends, and his influences. To our surprise, Grieg’s piano duo works actually are not very well known or appreciated. It is therefore a pleasure to highlight them for our audiences, who have received them with great enjoyment. Of course, all the great piano duo literature interests us very much.

In general, do the two of you prepare your respective parts separately and then come together only to make final adjustments, or do you work together on your repertoire right from the start?

Tina: When we start practicing new material, we always prepare separately at first, at least to a certain extent. This is also for practical reasons, as I live in Oslo and Heide lives in Berlin. We then come together; we spend much time together in many ways. The time we use at the instruments is just one part of our cooperation, as we also tune into each other on sharing our discoveries about life itself. We also share discoveries about the physiological aspects of piano playing, and we listen to music and discuss it together. Our duo cooperation works on many levels, as we have also become great friends, enjoying similar interests, such as good coffee, great food, and nurturing conversations.

When at our instruments, we are very efficient and thorough at the same time. Fortunately, we have very similar tastes in music and performance styles. Therefore we rarely have very opposing ideas; instead, we can give each other inspiration in various ways for developing our interpretations. We regard a piece of music as a relation that can reveal itself over time. Through that relationship, we are always open to discovering greater depths and aspects of the piece. It unfolds, and we all get to know each other and how we can relate as a “trio”—the two of us and the piece of music we play. In this way we can rediscover the piece every time, and at the same time feel the music under our skin as we perform it.

Obviously, the duo piano literature, whether for two pianos or for one piano four hands, is many times smaller than that composed for solo piano. Do you ever feel yourselves to be restricted in terms of the size and variety of your available repertoire?

Tina: No. Even if we never play pieces for one piano four hands, but keep to the two-piano literature, there is so much great music to choose from. We always feel eager to explore our next pieces, and are grateful for the very high quality of music that exists for this pair of instruments. The piano duo has actually been one of the favorite instrumental combinations of several composers, and so they have written great music for it.

How did Grieg’s adaptations of the Mozart sonatas first come to your attention, and what in particular attracted you to them?

Heide: Because the opening ceremony of the Edvard Grieg Research Unit was on January 27, 2006, it was clear to us that we could only play the Mozart-Grieg sonata on this, the 250th anniversary year of Mozart’s birth.

What do you consider to be the value of these versions of the sonatas to the two-piano repertoire in particular, and to a worldwide audience of classical music lovers in general?

Heide: Initially we found them humorous. But as we worked with them intensively, we discovered the great joy of being allowed to play the Mozart sonatas with the romantic embrace of Grieg’s second piano. After this experience, I now play the Mozart sonatas with more expression, but of course not in a romantic style. Playing romantically also has its rules, so to say—one cannot just rattle on. The articulation and the long lines, as well as the more passionate sound, must blossom from the inside out. At some point, I noticed that the embrace of Grieg’s second piano part was all about a declaration of Grieg’s love for Mozart. Grieg did not touch what Mozart wrote at all—he did not change even one note. All he did was to add some additional dynamics to that part. Through the recording of the Mozart-Grieg sonatas, the demand for the scores has grown to such an extent that they have been republished.

The notes for your latest release state that the Hommage á Grieg of Terje Bjørklund was commissioned by the two of you, but are silent about origins of the Grieg metamorphosis of Wolfgang Plagge. Did the two of you also commission that work? Do you have any other commissioned works to date?

Heide: Yes, Plagge’s work was also commissioned by us. To date we have no other commissioned works.

This question is for Heide Görtz. What was it like to be a pupil of Conrad Hansen? What do you consider to be the most valuable elements of technique and interpretation that you learned from him, and how do you try to pass those on in turn to your own pupils, such as Tina?

Heide: Conrad Hansen was an excellent pianist with a very imaginative approach to music. Already as a child he was sent to Berlin in order to study with Edwin Fisher, and lived with him as if he were his own son. He also played very intuitively and just magnificently, also prima vista , which made every lesson a special occasion. But he could not explain how he did it; consequently I learned from hearing and seeing him. I studied with him for 11 years, from ages 16 to 27. But by then I already had started to develop my own playing technique, which itself has altered over the years. His sound is nonetheless still my shining example.

Involvement with piano technique has led me to greater knowledge about the anatomy and neurology of piano playing, something that Conrad Hansen had never thought about. For his students, this lack of anatomical knowledge was not always easy to cope with. It takes a long time to develop the self-awareness needed to understand what the proper development of technique and sound implies.

This question is for Tina Margareta Nilssen. What was it like to be a pupil of Heide, and what do you consider to be the most valuable elements of technique and interpretation that you learned from her?

Tina: For me, it has been a great gift to have Heide’s very sharp ears and immense knowledge about the physiological aspects of piano playing to help me develop into a conscious musician and teacher. As I studied with her approximately eight years ago, she presented a whole new world for me with her in-depth knowledge about the connecting links between the body, mind, and interpretation. These new ideas were so different for me that they shook the very core of my view on piano playing. Suddenly I was presented with very logical and concrete ways to access a healthy and efficient means of becoming secure and convincing in my performances. It took much discipline and endurance to change my movement patterns, and to start feeling the body and all the musical resources within it. But I was very relieved to learn a method that gives me the opportunity to develop further as a pianist as long as I live. Just by knowing exactly how and where to situate my own fingers, arms, and the rest of the body with conscious knowledge, I now know how to let the music flow through me with both power and effortlessness.

Many things in my life changed after my year of studying with Heide in Berlin. Upon coming back to Norway, I decided to get my degree as a massage therapist, in order to have a greater foundation to teach it to others. Many students and professional musicians in Scandinavia became very interested as I started teaching them. They noticed the difference in their own playing, and those who had experienced injury or pain in connection with playing experienced healing and pain relief. This work has led me to starting my own health and wellbeing academy for musicians called Timani, where I will be leading 14 professional musicians and music students in an in-depth study lasting one year, starting in October 2013. I am very excited to be a part of developing an increasingly healthy generation of more conscious musicians and teachers, with fundamental knowledge about anatomy, movement analysis, somatic experience, and music psychology. I owe everything to Heide for giving me the foundation of knowledge to build the Timani academy.

The Goertz Method is briefly characterized in your album booklet notes as “an integrated playing technique based on a physiological natural approach to the instrument, to music and to sound.” Could you please explain in more detail what this entails?

Heide: As a student I was already preoccupied with body movement and relaxation. After doing Autogenic Training, Yoga, Flamenco, and Eutony, I encountered Feldenkrais in the mid ’70s. I practiced it for a long time; you can still find a number of things from it in my method. Through Feldenkrais, I realized the importance of the development of infantile movements and the far-reaching significance of that for learning in general. The knowledge of how this development occurs has been transformed into finger technique for the creation of good sound, rapidity, and ease of movement.

The elevation of the hand through the fingers leads to mobility, power, and stability. This is something that I miss in other methods of piano technique. The arms should not hit the keys! Through intensive observation, I have discovered movement patterns that give wonderful results. The externally visualized movements are then internalized in the body, and are therefore very intensive and accurate. Playing like this, one can listen much more carefully to what and how something is played. Anticipation of sound, feeling, and accuracy in perception of sound are the results.

How would you say that the Goertz Method differs from other methods of physical therapy currently utilized by performing musicians?

Heide: My method is in the first place a piano technique. Because it is based on anatomical knowledge, it can also be used for other instruments and also for singing. So, it is perhaps better understood as a technique for humans, aimed at the development of physical and mental resources. Through such development, and the correction of unhealthy movement patterns, one can also often heal various illnesses and injuries.

How many patients do you typically have under treatment with your method at any one time? How many pupils do you currently have studying the Goertz Method?

Heide: I have 12 patients, six piano students, and eight anatomy students who play different instruments. The number of anatomy students changes from semester to semester.

What are your current plans for future performances and recordings?

Tina: We are looking forward to playing in Norway and Germany this fall, in addition to our third trip to Moscow in October. We will have several concerts there, playing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich amongst others. It will be great to play these masters. The Brahms sonata for two pianos is also on our wish list of upcoming repertoire. It would be natural to record all of these in the future in addition to works by contemporary composers, as we found it exciting to record the pieces written for us.

MOZART (arr. Grieg) Piano Sonatas: in C, K 545; in F, K 533/494; in G, K 283; in c, K 475/457 Dena Piano Duo 2L 40 (SACD: 73:08)

MOZART (arr. Grieg) Sonata for 2 Pianos in D, K 448; Fantasie in c for Piano, K 475. GRIEG Altnorwegische Romanze mit Variationen für zwei Klaviere, Op. 51 Dena Piano Duo 2L 57 (SACD + Blu-ray audio: 59:33)

HOMMAGE À GRIEG Dena Piano Duo 2L 94 (SACD + Blu-ray audio: 55:26)

BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Haydn. PLAGGE Grieg metamorphosis. BJØRKLUND Hommage à Grieg. SAINT-SAËNS Variations sur un Thème de Beethoven

The first two of these three releases contain piano sonatas of Mozart as augmented with a second piano part by Edvard Grieg; the third is a release that honors Grieg by featuring works by contemporaries of Grieg who admired him, and new works by composers who utilize thematic materials from Grieg’s works. The initial CD received glowing praise from Steve E. Ritter in 31:3, who wrote: “This disc has been burning up my player, and I can’t keep this stupid smile off my face when hearing it. A hands-down double thumbs-up!” Burton Rothleder in 31:2 also praised the duo’s playing, but had somewhat more ambivalent reactions to Grieg’s treatments of the sonatas. By contrast, Peter J. Rabinowitz voiced a decidedly negative opinion of the duo’s playing in their second disc in 33:1: “plainspoken unto tedium: dynamics are compressed, rhythms are soggy, touch is uniform, tone of voice is generally unvaried.” Rabinowitz also provided a brief introduction to the already extant, small discography for these arrangements; the most direct comparison is with the Trenkner-Speidel Duo (positively reviewed by Rabinowitz in 29:6 and Peter Burwasser 30:2), which includes all but the K 448.

My own reaction is on the side of Ritter and Rothleder. In comparing this recording with that of Trenkner-Speidel, I enjoyed both and found the differences to be primarily a matter of interpretive taste. Whereas Trenkner-Speidel favors a lighter touch, with more crisply sprung rhythms and clearer articulation, the Dena Duo provides a reading of invitingly warm Gemütlichkeit . And, after all, this venture is not about playing Mozart in a neat, echt period-performance style, or even a modern counterpart to that; it is about a 19th-century adaptation of Mozart with a corresponding aesthetic. If by modern standards such an aesthetic appears overly sentimental, then one is better off avoiding these adaptations altogether. For its part, I think that the Dena Duo has entered into the spirit of that world and reproduced it quite successfully. The winning and thoroughly idiomatic rendition of the Altnorwegische Romanze für zwei Klaviere , op. 51, shows how thoroughly the duo has absorbed Greig’s music and made it their own. In this case, I can locate only one other recording in print of the two-piano version of this work, with the Duo Egri & Pertis on Hungaroton, which is also a fine version.

The third disc is primarily of interest for the works by Wolfgang Plagge and Terje Bjørklund. Plagge is a pianist and professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music. His Grieg metamorphosis for two pianos, op. 160, composed on commission for the Dena Duo in 2010, utilizes a theme from the “Watchman’s Song” of Grieg’s op. 12 Lyric Pieces . Reversing normal procedures, the piece only presents reworked fragments of the theme initially and delays a full statement of it until the end. It is a thoroughly enjoyable eight-minute work that wears its stylistic indebtedness to Hindemith and Bartók on its sleeve. The Hommage à Grieg for two pianos of Terje Bjørklund, composed in 2011, also was commissioned by the Dena Duo. Originally a jazz pianist, Bjørklund turned to classical music and is now a professor of composition at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. Utilizing themes drawn from several of Grieg’s works, the composer himself describes the work as “Grieg meets Bartók, Stravinsky and Arvo Pärt,” which sums it up quite well. Lasting about 10 minutes, it is agreeable enough, if rather episodic. Both receive effective performances.

The performances of the Brahms Haydn Variations and the Saint-Saëns Variations sur un Thème de Beethoven , op. 35 (the theme drawn from the trio section of the Menuet of the Piano Sonata No. 18, op. 31/3) are comparative letdowns. The Brahms is conscientious but nondescript; the complaints lodged by Rabinowitz find some justification here. The Saint-Saëns fares much better and is quite pleasant, but it lacks the touch of Gallic lightness and elegance that makes the piece a real joy. The Brahms of course enjoys numerous recordings; those with high-profile names include Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire on DG (reviewed by Patrick Rucker in 33:5 and placed on his 2010 Want List), Emmanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman on Sony (reviewed by Jerry Dubins in 29:1), and Murray Perahia and Georg Solti on Sony. The Saint-Saëns has several fine versions (check the Fanfare Archive), beginning with a classic account by Robert Casadesus and Phillipe Entremont. Both works appear on an intriguing Hungaroton DVD of the Duo Egri & Pertis, in which they play on one of the very few extant Pleyel double grand pianos, an instrument which houses two pianos inside a single large case where they share a single frame and soundboard but have separate strings, pedals, and mechanical actions.

The recorded sound is full and a bit plush. The second volume of the Grieg-Mozart pieces, and the Hommage à Grieg release, both contain two discs, one in SACD and the other in Blu-ray audio-only format. I did not detect any real difference in the sound, but (not being technologically inclined) I also did not tinker with my stereo settings in an attempt to do so. While the Grieg-Mozart hybrids are enjoyable, I confess that they are not something I would have sought out on my own or feel a strong urge to retain. But if you are an aficionado of 19th-century piano repertoire for whom these pieces have definite appeal, and have a taste for novel tonal 20th-century music as well, then these releases can be safely recommended to you. James A. Altena


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )