A Yard Sale, 2 Pianos and Opus 88a

Robert Cowan sets the musical score on the table and taps it lightly with his thin pianist's fingers.


"Don't write about me," he says. "Write about this."


The music in question is Max Bruch's Opus 88a, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. And the story behind it is even more interesting than the story of how Cowan and his wife, Joan Yarbrough, who usually spend their time driving around the United States with two Steinway pianos following in a trailer behind them, ended up in Moscow.


Cowan, who will perform the piece with Yarbrough at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall on Sunday, told the story of Bruch's Opus 88a this way:


In about 1915, two American "spinster sister" pianists named Rose and Ottalie Sutro traveled to Germany where they asked the composer Max Bruch (1838-1920) to create a new piece for them. The sisters, who were the first team of pianists to be called "duo-pianists," commissioned Bruch to compose a piece for two pianos and orchestra. Bruch agreed.


The sisters returned to America, where they performed the piece twice, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. But when they returned to Germany to play the concerto there, Bruch was appalled by their performance. During a rehearsal, he heard how the sisters had shortened and simplified the 22-minute work.


"Bruch was so disappointed in their standard that he wouldn't allow them to play the piece in Germany," said Cowan. "So they went home and put it away, never to perform it again. The score lay in a trunk in their house in Baltimore for the next 50 years."


The rediscovery of the piece is the stuff of estate-sale dreams. In 1971, after both sisters had died, a young American pianist went to the estate sale at their home and purchased a small box of musical scores "for about $12." Inside was the forgotten concerto by Max Bruch. Since then, Bruch's Opus 88a has been performed by many duo-pianists, including Yarbrough and Cowan, who recently retired as music professors at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.


"Duo-pianists are not often heard with orchestras," said Cowan, who is manager for himself and his wife. "It's not a medium that is a yearly event in orchestral series. It's even difficult to get managers to handle duo-pianists, so not only do I have to promote us, but I have to promote the medium."


Yarbrough and Cowan will perform the concerto Sunday with the Moscow Philharmonic. Conducting will be Paul Freeman, the American conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta. It will be the first time Bruch's concerto is performed in Russia.


"It's neo-romantic, very suitable for Russian audiences who are used to Tchaikovsky," Cowan said. "It's something that speaks to the heart."


During their week-long stay in Russia, the duo is also recording the piece, with Freeman and the Moscow Philharmonic, for a compact disc to be released by a small U.S. label in late 1994.


"For us, it's just fantastic, a big career boost," said Cowan, who has performed throughout the United States, Canada and Europe but is visiting Russia for the first time. He considers the trip to Russia "an investment in our future."


"Playing in Russia," he said, "is something that all performers want to do."





Sunday's program also includes Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and a Glazunov violin concerto with the Korean violinist Chen Tim. The concert hall is at 4/31 Triumfalnaya Ploshchad. Tel. 299-0378.