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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Complete Piano Works for Four Hands
CD 1
Sonata in D major K 448 (1781) [23:44]
Fugue in G minor K 401 (1772/73) [3:26]
Variations in G major K 501 (1786) [7:57]
Sonata in F major K 497 (1786) [34:41]
CD 2
Adagio & Fugue in C minor K 426 (ca.1788) [6:56]
Sonata in B-flat major K 358 (1774) [16:47]
Sonata in C major K 19d (1765) [11:30]
Fantasia in F minor for Musical Clockwork K 608 (1791) (arr. Busoni) [8:51]
CD 3
Fantasia in F minor K 594 (1790) [8:37]
Sonata in G major K 521 (1787) [23:19]
Sonata in D major K 381 (1772) [17:41]
Sonata in C major K 545 (1788) (arr. Grieg) [12:12]
Misha Dichter and Cipa Dichter (piano, four hands)
Recording dates and locations not given.
Nimbus NI 2537/9 [3CDs: 69.48 + 44.03 + 61.49]

Experience Classicsonline




This set hasn't been around very long, and was first released on the Musical Heritage Society label, a subsidiary of the Musicmasters catalogue. This Nimbus re-release has a similar look, and retains that nice Al Hirschfeld drawing on the cover. Described as 'seminal listening' by Evan Dickerson (below). I certainly concur that having fine performances of Mozart's entire output for piano duet in one beautifully recorded set is a terrific boon for buffs. There are some points at which I found the playing less than ideal, and as I went on I ended up struggling with the question, is this is a set to acquire and to treasure, or something of an also-ran?

Husband-and-wife pianists Misha and Cipa Dichter met at The Juilliard School and made their first joint appearance in 1972. Having been married and performing together for such a long time it is hardly surprising there is a special chemistry between these two performers. Despite having been active for so long, this turns out to be the duo's premiere recording. In a way I can hear why. These are performances which, on the whole, would do better as a live concert experience rather than under the unforgiving spotlight of the microphone.

Comparing the wonderful Sonata in D major K 448 against the well known 1985 Murray Perahia/Radu Lupu recording, originally on CBS and now on Sony, is about as stiff a test as any alternative could undergo. Playing the Dichter duo in the car on the way back from one of those interminable meetings the Dutch love so much, a colleague summed their playing up somewhat cruelly as 'van dik hout,' a literal translation being 'of thick wood' and implying heavy-handedness. Put against Perahia/Lupu I have to agree to a certain extent. The recording presents a rich, orchestral piano sound, but the bounce in the rhythmic Allegro con spirito is hampered by micro-breaks as shifts in register occur, phrasing is a bit four-square, the architecture of the harmonic progressions steers a rather random path, dynamics are a bit one-dimensional and with no real pianissimo, the odd note pokes out here and there like a spring in an old sofa. This is a nice enough recording taken in isolation, but if you've been spoiled by the refinement and sheer inspired joyfulness of Perahia/Lupu then this won't supplant them.

This remains true of most of the rest of the set: a lovely recording and a marvellous collection of pieces, but playing which refuses to take off quite as one might like. I think some of the hardest works to bring off in this context are the fugues. The Fugue in G minor K 401 is another case in point. Beginning rather heavily, it really has nowhere to go over its relatively brief span. The subject really is treated like a plank of wood, giving a feeling of 'oh dear, here it comes again' rather than 'wow, there it goes.' With a mild softer dip in dynamic in the middle, the end piles on more and more so that we've had quite enough by the end thank you. It all sounds rather straitjacketed and old fashioned. Rather unremitting heaviness is again a feature of the Adagio & Fugue in C minor K 426, but, allowing the penny to drop, if you can hear this as an 'orchestral' interpretation rather than as a chamber-music performance then it is possible to go along with the musicians to a certain point. It's like a Stokowski arrangement of a Bach chorale - more orchestration than original. With K 426 I'm afraid I find the build-up from loud at the beginning to very loud by the end rather unbearable, but if you like Mozart well-cooked and served with mustard and hot chillies then this might well be your bag.  
The playful theme of the Variations in G minor K401 works well enough, and where the Dichters play with a lighter touch and more restraint the musicality shines through a little more. There is however little definition between varied theme and accompanying figurations later on. The opening of the Sonata in F major K497 is nicely wrought, and with Misha Dichter voting for this as one of his favourites the players perhaps show a closer affinity with the music. Of the slow movement he comments '[it] is extraordinary, I'm always aware of its feeling like a wind serenade in its writing. I try to feel very wind-like in playing it. Bassoon lines, clarinets seem hinted at in the piano part.' With this sense of breathing through the melodic lines there is somewhat more elegance in the phrasing here than in some of the other pieces, and the results are attractive enough.

Moving through the other sonatas confirms and reinforces the comments above. I like the Dichters touch in the softer movements and the warmth they bring to the rich and satisfying piano sound on this recording. There is no indication as to what kind of piano is/are used, but I would like to know. Searching for the utmost Mozartean chamber-music intimacy, you will probably find yourself yearning in vain for those melodic shapes and witty turns which make you want to laugh and dance - the Dichter duo is I am sorry to say rather too flat-footed for that, but with so much fairly decently played very good music on offer I also find it hard to be overly negative about this set. Bearing in mind the 'orchestral' aspect of this kind of playing, I was intrigued to hear what they would do with the Busoni arrangement of the Fantasia in F minor for Musical Clockwork K608. The opening leads one to expect the full works, but the fugal writing is well supported by some nicely placed bass lines. Once again, spoilt by an alternative, I found myself wrestling with the dramatic recurrence of the opening theme when compared with the 1990 DG recording by Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz. There is another of those micro-gaps which separates the last, rather hacked chord of the musical sentence, making for a rather lumpy statement. Sure, it's tricky, but shouldn't be impossible for specialists like these. There is another arrangement at the end of disc 3, with Grieg's addition of a second piano to the famous Sonata in C major K 545. Originally educational in purpose, Grieg found 'the whole thing sounded surprisingly good' in the concert hall, and for some reason so does it here. It is as if the duo are in a different session, a different location, and on a different plane altogether. The last movement of this is a mad romp which will have you rolling in the aisles, and the duo clearly relish this arrangement to the full. The relatively simple and transparent textures come through with a lively quality which I missed in many of the other pieces, and I found myself going back to make sure I hadn't just been in some kind of grumpy mood with the other performances. Indeed, some of disc 3 does seem to have a more ethereal quality in places, though the driving energy of what, to my mind should be a gentle flow in the secondary voice of the running passages of the Andante of the Sonata in C major K 521 brought me back to reality soon enough. With all that power play going on it is hardly surprising that the melody is more drowning than waving in that section from 2:40, though there is some lovely playing elsewhere in the movement.

If you are looking for a more long-term satisfying complete set of these works I would personally go for the Yara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen duo on Sony. This is more expensive and also not perfect, and I've found myself liking their teasing with the inner tempi less over the years. They do have a lighter touch in general however, frequently undercutting the Dichters' timings and giving a fleeter impression even where durations are similar. This might also have something to do with the balance of the recording, but perception can be as valid as reality in these cases. Once again, taken in isolation and with more generous ears I can hear why many listeners may have found the Dichter set more admirable than the impression I have given in my review. There is a great deal of very good playing here and the recordings are top notch, done in a nicely resonant if anonymous location. If you only really want the great Sonata in D major K 448 then I would however urge you to find a life-enhancing copy of the Murray Perahia/Radu Lupu recording on Sony which is coupled with an equally essential recording of the Schubert Fantasia op.103. There is another K 448 with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Malcolm Frager on a Decca 'Steinway Legends' re-issue which if anything swings even more than the Sony, but the couplings might appeal less, and the Perahia/Lupu combination has long been a desert-island must-have. If you do decide to 'go for it' be prepared for big beefy late-romantic orchestral Mozart rather than the truly witty quicksilver chamber-salon variety.

Dominy Clements 
Beefy Mozart ... see Full Review 

But Evan Dickerson in 2005 though this one of his Discs of the Year


Big-name pianists have regularly joined forces on disc to perform a selection of these Mozart works - Lupu and Perahia on Sony, Cooper and Queffelec on Ottavo, and Lortie and Mercier on Chandos, to name just three pianistic pairings. More often than not the couplings have been Schubert works for four hands.


As far as concerns us here these works can be traced like a leitmotif through three pairs of lives: Mozart and his sister Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), Rosina and Joseph Lhevinne (*), and their pupils Misha and Cipa Dichter. Perhaps the Dichters are not as well known as the other pairings listed above, but this set holds out the potential of several advantages. Firstly, the completeness of the set, as opposed to one or two works in isolation; secondly, perhaps a special intimacy brought to the playing; and thirdly, the presentation of a couple of curiosities.


I chose to listen to these works in strict order of K number. Anyone wanting a sense of Mozart’s compositional development within the four-handed medium using this set should get used to juggling the discs: the dexterity pays off with a rewarding musical journey. Mozart used the form for a variety of reasons: to capture different aspects of his musical personality, written to be showpieces performed during his youthful tours accompanied by father Leopold and sister Nannerl, as teaching pieces (!) and, not least, as a medium to stretch his imagination.


The Sonata in C major, K. 19d composed in London in 1765 shows the youthful Mozart working within the accepted notions of the form, no doubt under Leopold’s guidance, and, some have claimed, editorship in terms of preserving these early works for posterity. But the Dichters’ performance of it announces several important characteristics of the work and set as a whole. Closely though naturally recorded, the parts are nicely set off against one another and display interplay as a key ingredient. Also immediately apparent, particularly in the Menuetto-trio, is a rapt intimacy that fits the quiet understated brilliance of Mozart’s writing - a good sign of things to come. The closing Rondo sees skilled negotiation of tempo changes; further revealing Mozart’s already advanced assimilation of the need for dramatic contrast within the composition.


If from here on in I pick out those aspects of each work that particularly attracted attention, it is not that the rest lacks merit, because it doesn’t.


The Sonata in B-flat major, K. 358 displays again a real sense of equality in the pianistic partnership. Tempi, particularly for the charming rippling middle adagio, are well chosen. They speak of practise and experience, but have not lost the fun behind the writing. Sonata in D major, K. 381 is notable for the crispness and clarity of the finger-work from the start, and the sense of balance the parts give the music internally.


The Fugue in G minor, K.401 appears as a miniature exercise, and one can well imagine it being used for teaching purposes to instruct variously in technique and as an example of fugal structure. Likewise, with the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 426. In the Dichters’ hands they spring full of life from the page, even the more outwardly serious passages, so that - whatever their humble teaching origins might have been - a sense of invention within the confines of musical form is felt ... even to the edge of chaos in the fugue of K. 426.


The remaining items are all major works, and show Mozart’s style at its mature zenith. Sonata in D major, K. 448 is an intricate piece full of imagination and brilliance. The Dichters’ playing retains the jewel-like clarity from earlier works and remains ever alert to both structure and idiom. I particularly enjoyed the hushed, almost vocal quality of the andante.


Sonata in F major, K.497, the longest work included, continues in many ways the path begun with K. 448. The major difference outwardly is the less showy nature of the piece – but I recall Sir Clifford Curzon saying how hearing another pianist pull off a Mozart slow movement really successfully inspired his admiration more than any amount of showy fireworks. The intricacy of the work is made to sound disarmingly simple, which of course is anything but the case in reality. And what a flood of ideas there is to contend with, order and balance! Just one example: the nuance the performance has is the way at around 6’50" in the closing allegro the line is effortlessly slimmed to a simple run to lead into the most understated yet totally apt ending imaginable.


Sonata in C major, K. 521 is given such fluency in the Dichters’ playing that it immediately draws you into the piece. Perhaps more so than elsewhere the voices of each piano remain distinct from the other and this is fully brought out in the playing. There are plenty of opportunities to catch the intimate side in dappled half-light, as these alternate with brightly-lit sparkling passages, and the sensitivity to inner dynamism is absolutely as it should be. It’s worth getting the set for the sonatas K. 448, 497 and/or 521 alone.


Now to the curiosities – the arrangements by Busoni and Grieg. Quite what prompted Grieg to keep Mozart’s sonata in C major, K.545, intact, assign it to one piano, and write a whole other part to fit alongside, is not known. The effect though is strange, as the work moves gradually from something distinctly Mozartian to abstract Norwegian impressionism. Busoni, for his part, creates a serious virtuoso display from Mozart’s clockwork composition that is dispatched with suitable precision and flair by the Dichters.


This goes on my ‘Discs of the Year’ list without hesitation. Seminal listening in every respect.

Evan Dickerson



 


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