If classical improvisation is difficult, it’s doubly so when the goal is transposition into jazz; how two pianists can combine together in this way is hard to imagine.
But for the Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy, two heads have long been better than one. His defining infant experience was hearing phrases which came through the wall from a violinist who was practising next door, and finding he could answer him on the piano. Later in life, rehearsals for ‘Double Dream’ - in which he and the Norwegian pianist Misha Alperin would turn Bach, Chopin, and Debussy into jazz – have had for logistical reasons to take place over the telephone.
And with their Steinways interlocking in the perfect acoustic of Kings Place, we heard the results. They started with the lights down, opening with a rumination on Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’ which rang out gorgeously in the gloom, then, with twin video screens focusing on hands and faces – Alperin’s fizzing with excitement, Rudy’s gently quizzical – they embarked on the most extraordinary classical/jazz conversation I’ve ever heard.
Sometimes the classical pieces were first played straight, and then ingeniously messed with – subverting a poised Chopin mazurka by suddenly dropping it a semitone, letting a Debussy Etude with a walking bass suddenly run so fast that it took off into space. Using a cross between a bagpipe and a mouth-organ, Alperin launched into an Armenian dance by Komitas which Rudy countered with mournful Arabic octaves; Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka’ came in obliquely and stratospherically high, then found its feet in a majestic full-dress performance.
A dainty tune by Haydn seemed to close the proceedings, was blown to smithereens by monumental crashing chords, then resurfaced like a perfumed musical box amid smoking ruins: in this interplay between seriousness and mockery, nothing was what it seemed for very long. We got boogie, stride, and bebop, but none of the expected Mingus/Tatum/Peterson moments: these brilliant pianists could freewheel in tandem through a wide range of styles, without once descending to pastiche.
The following night’s collaboration was between Rudy and the actor Peter Guinness: in ‘Letters to Milena’, Kafka’s love-letters to his young paramour were accompanied by a selection of pieces from Janacek’s ‘In the mists’ and ‘On an overgrown path’. The result was hauntingly dramatic: the morose urgency with which Guinness infused the words was answered by a kaleidoscope of emotions from the piano; each art-form was enriched by the other.