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Pianists Yaara Tal (left) and Andreas Groethuysen 

In a culturally rich city like ours, it is easy to find a wide range of solo piano concerts and recitals nearly every week of the year. Less common is the slightly old fashioned piano duo. Such duos may share a single piano (and a remarkable degree of physical proximity), or perform with two.

Duo Tal & Groethuysen perform in both configurations. In their University of Chicago Presents concert at Mandel Hall on Friday night, they began with a single piano and then performed using two pianos after the intermission.

Israeli pianist Yaara Tal and her German partner Andreas Groethuysen have been performing together since 1985 and have recorded extensively. This was their Mandel Hall debut.

They opened the concert with Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four-Hands in B-flat Major, K. 358. The composer was still a teenager when he wrote this to be performed by himself and his sister Nannerl. It has sparkling flashiness which Tal – playing the prima part (the high end of the keyboard) – failed to make spark. For much of the piece it seemed that the duo choose strength over delicacy; the rapid runs were assured, even, and articulate yet lacked a featheriness which Mozart seems to cry out for. The Adagio was both more gentle and more subtle, and they returned to power for the final movement, augmenting it with lots of punch for the finish.

Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor, D. 940 was written in the last year of his life and is considered one of his most important piano works. Even before it started, you knew tricky things were to come as Tal began to play with her right hand while holding her entire left arm across her chest in order to leave Groethuysen enough room to reach his part of the keyboard.

There is a haunting quality to the music, and the duo began with a quiet, controlled approach. The dotted-rhythm melody that opens the Fantasie was given lyrical treatment. Later, some of the more ethereal aspects of the music were highlighted. The pair found lots of turbulence and anger in the second movement yet may have invested too much pounding into their interpretation. The final-movement fugue had force, and the conclusion was satisfying.

Wagner’s own arrangement of the Overture to “Tannhäuser” marked a distinct change in the program. This and the final two works were all transcriptions of symphonic music. As the thoughtful program notes by Thomas Christensen, University of Chicago music professor, make clear in several places, these reductions come at the cost of the “details of instrumental voicing, register, and texture.” So even the best arrangement is something distinctly less than the original.

Tal and Groethuysen’s “Tannhäuser” Overture was sturdy and had sections of great intensity. In some of the biggest moments the sound was truly glorious. But it never had enough magic to make me want to hear that piano four-hands version again.

After the intermission the pair returned with the stage now set up for two pianos. They led off the second half with Debussy’s “La Mer” (“The Sea”), arranged by André Caplet. It is no exaggeration to say that Caplet did an amazing job in his reduction, and seems to require a huge number of pianistic skills.

Tal and Groethuysen invested great energy in it and were certainly successful in creating a sense of the sea and its ever-rolling waves. But so much of the detail seemed smeared into a single kind of sound, constantly reminding the listener of the exquisitely voiced orchestral version of the music.

“Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”) by Strauss and arranged by Otto Singer, was much the same. The pianists propelled themselves into the music and had bold, confident sound. Their phrasing highlighted the trickster element of Till Eulenspiegel. They rendered both of the Till themes with panache as they wended their way through the work. But a piano is not a horn, and no amount of pianistic style can change that.

In the end, I found this concert illuminating in a way I hadn’t expected: This was a perfect way of closely comparing music written for piano and music only arranged for piano. I found it a fascinating lesson.

This concert was supported by the Wilhelm von Humboldt Performance Fund which will fund a performance or exhibition every year related to Germanic studies from the time of Martin Luther to World War I. Anne Robertson, dean of the Humanities at the University of Chicago, told me that many of the future events supported by the fund will be music, while others could be theater, an art exhibit, or even a law program. Next year the fund will again support music, details of which are not yet available.

The next University of Chicago Presents concert takes place on Jan. 24 at 7:30 at the Logan Center (915 E. 60th St.). Violinist Rachel Podger gives a concert of the music of Bach and Biber. Visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu for more information.

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