MUSIC / Bruising the ivories: Nicholas Williams on two-piano pieces at the ICA

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Two grand pianos, face to face; subdued, cinema lighting. Sunday's ICA concert was a visual poser even before it began. Where had that second Steinway come from? But then, this series is used to working miracles.

Easier, perhaps, to ask how the performers, Ingryd Thorson and Julian Thurber, came to be there. Copenhagen-based, they played the first two sections of Black and Blue, by MusICA organiser (and Independent music critic) Adrian Jack, in their home city some years ago. Now they were premiering the final three-part version, a rough, tough, wrestling match of a piece, full of robust humour as its chord streams bruised their way about the keyboards, mindless of collisions. Ivesian broadside gave way to jazz- flavour riffs; no doubt about which of our century's traditions this composer favours.

Debussy, of course, stands father to them all. His enigmatic En Blanc et Noir, read with grace and precision, began the evening. Thorson and Thurber refused to dramatise the music beyond its natural means. Wartime elements - bugle calls, patriotic chorales - were subdued; the shapely climax arose persuasively from the work's mysterious sense of proportion. The finale, a view in winter, was fragile, airy, showing the players' sense of accord. Leaping Dance and Kneeling Dance by Kevin Volans called for similar tact, though to other expressive ends. Despite their titles, these studies in African music evoked a quiet melancholy: chansons tristes, perhaps, of our age.

Sunday's most substantial number, after the Debussy, was Variations on Chick Corea's 'La Fiesta' by Danish composer Kim Helweg. This was a homage to Seventies fusion music, distinctive as kipper ties, and here famous again for 20 minutes. Musical references to the decade's cult groups (Magma, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra) were probably lost on many listeners, who still found it good, clean fun. Plucked piano strings and rapped piano lids added to the sense of occasion. The end was long in build-up; a grand splash of colour when it came.

In stark contrast was Laszlo Vidovszky's Pastime, a severe, four-part canon for two pianists. Four metronomes, either side of the pianos like mini-obelisks, helped tell the story of 'how precious time passes', and how it shouldn't be wasted. A loaded statement. But then again, that's the point of MusICA: to show how composers pass their time, and how it's used by them in many different ways.

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