I wrote recently about the piano duets played every night at piano camp in France – not just two people at one piano, but sometimes three people at one piano, or four people at two pianos. Famous works of music arranged for multiple hands, with one or two piano keyboards being used to their utmost, and players forced into intriguing proximity.
After all this many-players-at-one-instrument music, I had the opposite experience this week, of seeing one person playing two instruments at once. In this case they were a piano and a bandoneon, the South American concertina which accompanies tango music. Normally the bandoneon requires two hands to play, but the delightfully poker-faced Finnish musician Mikko Helenius – playing with Argentinian singer Martin Alvarado at the Edinburgh Fringe – had found a way to sit at the grand piano, wedging the bandoneon against his right knee such that he could play the piano with his left hand and the bandoneon with his right. Helenius played an unusual solo version of Astor Piazzolla’s beautiful slow piece ‘Oblivion’, the melody on the bandoneon and the rippling harmonies on the piano – quite a feat of co-ordination.
Billy Mayerl, the pianist-composer who was hugely popular in the 1920s and 30s, used to do a music-hall ‘turn’ where he played two pianos at once. Before the advent of YouTube clips, I had always imagined that this must be done by placing the two piano keyboards in a V shape with the pianist sitting in the angle of the V, so as to bring the two instruments as close together as possible. But I learned recently from this clip that Billy had made it even more difficult for himself by having the two piano keyboards face one another, forcing himself to play with hands outstretched to each side. He precedes this portion of the performance by saying chirpily, ‘And here’s a glimpse into the future’. I’m still trying to work out what he meant by that!