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Piano Magazine

Piano Magazine, volume 7 No 6, November/December 1999

The unique Pekinel sisters have been enchanting, exciting and moving audiences around the world with an inimitable combination of seriousness, humour and effortless virtuosity. Daniel Stearns takes up the story

The Pekinels are a class act, and no mistake. The proof of the pudding is in the listening. Forget the fact that they are elegant, well-to-do, highly attractive, even glamorous identical twins - a publicist's dream come true. Never mind that they are fluent in five languages, or that their teachers have included Yvonne Loriod, Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, Mieczsyslaw Horszowski and Leon Fleisher (can anyone else lay claim to such a line-up?). All you have to do is listen to them play. Their Teldec recording of the complete Mozart sonatas for four hands and two pianos is unsurpassed and seldom equalled, and is likely to remain so (though nobody's knocking such ad hoc duos as Perahia and Lupu, or Eschenbach and Frantz). Their DG account of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is a stunner by any standards; their orchestral outings with Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Saint-Sains' Carnival of the Animals are irresistible, and their new Chandos recording of double concertos by Mozart, Bruch and Mendelssohn is a scintillating delight.

One of the most remarkable features of their playing is its uncanny unanimity. On the spur of the moment they make the subtlest (and sometimes the most complex) rubatos as though they were one, neither differing with the other by a millisecond. There is a 'psychic' sixth sense which connects them, as with many identical twins, but these are identical twins with a difference. Indeed several. When not rehearsing or performing, they live quite separate lives, seldom dress alike offstage, adopt contrasting hairstyles, and have spent much of their lives trying to be different from each other. And both frequently use the first person singular when answering questions together.

'Discovered' in 1984 by Herbert von Karajan, they have since made regular appearances with many of the world's greatest orchestras. Both are musicians first and pianists second, and both have won top prizes as soloists in their own right. If they suffer from anything in English-speaking countries it is because of their given names, which it must be admitted are not a publicist's dream. Güher and Süher, however, are not pronounced Goo-er and Sewer but rhyme with 'skier' and mean in Turkish 'a gem' and 'a small waterfall', respectively.

Born in Istanbul, they grew up in Turkey, France, Germany and the United States. Though they enjoy a thoroughly international lifestyle, each with bases in London, both are married to Turkish husbands and remain vibrantly loyal to their homeland. And neither of them can remember a time when music wasn't a central part of their lives. "My mother was a professional pianist," says Süher, "but when we and my brother came along she stopped giving concerts and just played for herself - and for us. But it was always music in our home, throughout the day it was a part of our normal surroundings. But we were never pressured into being musicians, never." They hardly needed to be.

"We entered the Conservatory when we were five, playing Bach Inventions, some pieces by Czerny, some Mozart, and we gave our first concert when we were six, when we played both solo and together. And when we were nine we played our first orchestral concert, performing the Mozart double concerto with the Ankara Philharmonic in a live broadcast."

And did they ever, singly or together, suffer from stage fright as children?

"Stage fright? No, not really," Süher answers. "A certain nervousness, of course. But sometimes I would feel very calm and then I began to feel nervous about why I was feeling so calm! For 15 minutes before walking out onto the stage, yes, there was a certain nervousness but from the moment we began to play, it vanished and it was the most beautiful place there could be."

"It doesn't mean everything that we're twins, like many people think," Güher continues, "it doesn't mean that everything is given to us, as if by magic. Actually for much of my childhood and teens, I tried hard to be as different as possible from Süher - and our parents were very sympathetic to our instinct for independence." But there were times when circumstance overpowered instinct. They always had the same teacher, for a start. "But the reason we have had the same teachers, is simply that we both wanted the best teachers, and in the schools where we studied we always agreed on who was the best teacher for us individually. And though we had the same teachers, we were learning separate repertoire, and as children, played much more apart than together. In fact after the age of nine we really separated. We never played together. Not until we were 19. For 10 whole years, we never played as a duo. We were busy developing our own individual musical personalities, and our own individual techniques."

And to a large extent, it worked. But did they, when they were growing up, encounter the same difficulties or otherwise as far as technique was concerned? Or did one of them have to work harder - or feel that they had to work harder than the other to get the same result? "I had more trouble with my left hand than Güher, whereas she had to work harder on producing a really big sound." And what of their later teachers? Rudolf Serkin, for instance who invited them to come to the United States and study with him at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

"Serkin insisted on teaching us separately. When we studied as a duo it was with Horszowski. Serkin would seat himself at the opposite end of the room and would ask us each time what we wanted to play to him. And when we finished, the first thing he would do was to ask us what we thought of the way we had just played. And then he would ask why we had played it in that particular way, and then a discussion would develop between us. But he would talk about literature and painting and many things like that, and that's why we say that he was not so much a teacher as a philosopher of music. He would never sit at the piano, he would never demonstrate anything to us. He wouldn't teach technique at all. "'I have a completely different hand technique', he would say. 'Don't ask ma any questions about technique because I can't show you.' You really had to be a finished artist in a way, before coming to him. We were then already in our early twenties. What he would do, though, was to guide us into creative moments where we could deepen the quality of what we were doing, of what we were aspiring to. It was the same with Arrau - and with Fleisher too, but Fleisher was both: a very good pedagogue and a great, great musician."

How similar, I wondered, are the sisters' tastes and enthusiasms? Are they both drawn equally to the same composers, or do they differ there?

"I am more strongly drawn to Brahms than Güher is," says Süher. "I tend to be more structural and analytical in my thinking, where Güher is perhaps more emotional in her responses and approaches. If we take the analogy of painting, I will tend to fill the room first with forms, and then I come to the colours. Whereas Güher starts with the colours, in the abstract and then finds form through the shaping of the colours. And this, of course, is a great advantage. It creates a valuable balance, since we are both giving ideas to each other which together can produce fresh approaches which neither of us thought of individually, and which will arise spontaneously."

"But we are very individual, we disagree on lots of thigs, we often have to fight to get our individual points through. But these are friendly fights - and by the time we walk out to play, harmony has alwas been restored. The point is, though, that these fights often arise precisely because of our determination to be different!"

There are distinct musical advantages to this, however: "When we differ about a sonata," says Süher... "Or any other piece that involve repeats," addes Güher... "we will do it one way in the first playing of the exposition and then the other one's a way in the repeat. But the most wonderful thing is when we discover new ideas, new approaches, new atmospheres, even, while we are actually performing - things which we never practised or discussed, but completely new ideas.

"But this brings up an interesting distinction between two-piano music and all other forms of chamber music except those for strings alone - trios, quartets, quintets and so on - and that is the fact that two instruments produce the same sound, the same kind of sound. Therefore the more we can differentiate the two instruments the better. Each instrument has to have its own character or the element of contrast is lost. The two pianos don't really 'live' as a medium."

"When learning the parts separately," I put in, "your reaction to the music, to the innate requirements of the music itself, is to play it in such-and-such a way, with such-and-such an intensity, such-and-such a volume etc. When you come to play it together, do you not sometimes find that the two sounds are at least potentially in conflict, and that you therefore have to rethink your first decisions?"

"Exactly!" They answer, in emphatic unison. "And this is one of the reasons why we no longer play in the traditional manner, with the two pianos next to each other. Almost always, we now play back to back - and for musical reasons, not as a gimmick to demonstrate the 'telepathy' between us. It gives more room in which the individual character of the two instruments can be heard and understood. And playing back to back also means that one has to hear, to listen, with even greater concentration.

"When we first come together after studying a piece independently, we now always use a tape recorder. We record first one, then the other, then we listen back together and discuss which one, or which parts, come closest to realising the intentions of the composer. After all, when one is in the act of playing, one cannot hear and note every detail, every touch of the pedal, every detail of colour and so on. Only a recording can give you complete objectivity and all 100 per cent concentration. So we record all our concerts too, and after each concert we listen back, to hear exactly what we have done, and just as important, what we have not done!"

It gives you a kind of conductor's vantage point. "Yes, exactly. And this is so important when it comes to getting the balances exactly right, getting the harmony in the right perspective to the main line, and coordinating the pedaling and things like that."

And when you're preparing a new work, does each of you learn both parts? "Oh, absolutely! Yes. Always. And we exchange parts from tour to tour - but never from one concert to another. That would be too risky, too potentially confusing. Especially since we play everything from memory. But even without planning it, it can sometimes happen that one of us, not immediately realising it, will pass from one part to another. Not often. But it has happened!"

And do they both still pursue solo careers as well? Again they speak as one. "Not now, no. We have done, particularly when we were younger, but now it would be too much. Occasionally we do solo concerts, but that's not the same as a solo career!"

Well, as Joe E. Brown put it, "Nobody's perfect!"

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