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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, D 940 [18’39]
Rondo in A major for piano duet, D 951 [9’32]
Piano Sonata in A major, D 664 [23’28]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D 784 [23’13]
Allegro in A minor for piano duet Lebensstürme, D 947 [17’14]
Maria João Pires and Ricardo Castro (piano)
Recorded at Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal, May 2004
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5233 [52’05+41’08]

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This may strike you as a slightly odd thing to do, coupling two solo sonatas with a selection of duets and in the process stretching things onto two discs. Well, if you’re a fan of the artists you’ll be glad to know that it’s a ‘two-for-one’ package, and in superb sound. As for the thinking behind the programme, I can only assume that the key of A major (and its relations) is the unifying factor. Whatever the case, Pires has done this sort of thing before and made it work, as in her coupling of the Chopin 24 Preludes and the Piano Concerto No.2.

I’ve already mentioned the piano sound, which is exceptional, because it does have a bearing on the type of listening involvement you will have. The Yamaha grand is regulated and tuned to perfection, itself a pleasure, and is recorded very warmly and quite closely. This makes for an intensely intimate experience, as if the piano is in your front room and the recital is for your benefit. This is fine for some of the music, which is indeed reflective, soul-searching stuff, but it does mean another, grander dimension is sometimes missing.

Take the finest of the duets, the great Fantasie in F minor. The famous slow tread that opens the piece is suitably world-weary, emerging from the speakers with an uncanny realism. But later, when the fireworks really get going, I preferred the grander, more epic playing of Lupu and Perahia, whose live Snape Maltings version has long been a benchmark with critics. Maybe it’s the tangible audience presence that lifts the performers, but there is definitely an air of danger, an edge-of-the-seat tension that is lacking for me in this latest version. The playing is immensely cultured, but does not take wing as in the Sony version, staying resolutely earthbound. This may suit some listeners as a fine for a ‘library’ recording, but Lupu and Perahia involve one even more in the big moments (like the later fugue) while missing none of the hushed mystery.

The other two duets do not approach the Fantasie for greatness, but are very well done here, even though it could be argued they are more fun to play than listen to.

The two solo sonatas are shared between the two pianists, Pires taking the A major, D.664 and Castro the A minor. I have to say I preferred Castro’s overall playing. D.784 is one of Schubert’s bleakest utterances, the opening unison melody achingly pregnant with tragedy. Castro captures this to perfection, his pianissimo touch a joy to hear. He doesn’t perhaps command as much attention as, say, Andras Schiff (Decca) in the bold dotted figure (especially in octaves) that dominates so much of this first movement. Likewise, Schiff has more abandon in the finale, but Castro is beautifully poetic in the slow movement, the piano once again caught with amazing reality.

Pires’s D.664 is slightly disappointing, at least on initial acquaintance. She adopts a very flowing tempo, so the famous singing melody of the first movement moves along at quite a lick. This is not in itself a problem, until you hear how Schiff phrases the tune, allowing for the contours and letting it breathe. Pires also has a rather mannered way with the stormy rising octaves in the development section, holding the first of the run slightly longer, in a tenuto fashion. This is irritating on repeated hearings, especially when you compare it to Schiff’s abandoned bravura. The sparkling finale is well done, but overall there is nothing that raises this version above those by rivals in more economical sets.

Don’t expect your knowledge of Schubert’s piano style to be advanced by the booklet note. Pires has always enjoyed commissioning something different, but this time she’s gone surely too far. In an essay entitled ‘Resonance of the Original’, we get the musings not of a music critic, but of a psychoanalyst. Thus we get treated to such gems as ‘…a primary sensitivity which would be doomed to the fatal lacerations of intensity in all its implacability…’ and ‘...woven like a fine existential skin which can quicken only by being enfolded in a sound-space, experienced as a "merging dyad"’. Priceless.

There are certainly things to enjoy here – the artists are too good for there not to be. But given the quirkiness of the programming and packaging, I simply can’t imagine buyers being tempted away from much safer recommendations. Lupu and Perahia are on mid-price Sony (coupled with the Mozart Sonata in D for 2 Pianos, equally enthralling) and there is any number of combinations for the two solo sonatas.

Tony Haywood

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