Meet the family. You probably already know the great Fantasy
. Around it, gather its brothers and sisters. They are alike, and yet different, as members of a family usually are. You may be surprised to discover their existence. The sea of Schubert’s four-hands piano music is vast, but its islands are not the most popular touristic resorts. Recently more and more recordings have been devoted to Schubert four-hands. The present album packs four works of more or less the same size and stature – without short and effective pieces like the Marches militaires
, and without the endurance tests like the Grand Duo
or the Divertissements
The Fantasy in F minor
is not easy to describe. It is by turns turbulent, lyrical, somber, vigorous and grand. It is one of the most magical, entrancing and dramatic pieces of music ever written. Not every performance does it full justice. The 1984 recording by Perahia and Lupu on Sony is the pinnacle by which I ultimately measure all others. The new recording by Kofman and de Groote is well paced, which is crucial for this music. The dramatic accents are all there, and the music takes real flight. It is done more “staccato” than the Perahia/Lupu, and I miss the feeling of “cold space” that I sense in the older recording. Where Perahia and Lupu are buffetted like a leaf in a storm, Kofman and de Groote run fast. Their Largo
is not really slow, but it works well. The interpretation of the third, “scherzo” section of the work is probably the least successful, and it drags down the overall impression. There, the more laid-back moments are not relaxed and so when more turbulent episodes arrive the “cold shower” effect is lost. Also, the tempo is rather immutable, which results in a mechanical feeling. The last section is again sensitive and spectacular, and its dark, heavy climax is very impressive. On the whole, this reading has in store fewer surprises for the listener than those that allow more freedom. Still, it is very powerful, with true symphonic depth.
The Variations on an Original Theme
start like one of the Marches militaires
. The theme is rather square, but the variations are diverse and enjoyable. Imagine something between the Diabelli Variations
and those from the Death and the Maiden
quartet – arguably, without the depth of either. Still, Schubert is Schubert though there is some anticipation of Schumann and the inspiration radiates like sunlight.. The last section (the slow variation and the one after it) is pure pleasure. Except for a few passing clouds, the general mood is cheerful, and the performance is bright and full of character.
Do not believe the disc cover and the booklet: what they call Rondo in A major
is actually the Lebensstürme
duo, and vice versa. The Rondo
is one of the examples of Schubert’s “heavenly length”. The episodes share the relaxed mood of a quiet conversation. Even more agitated moments look back to Mozart, not Beethoven. This music can have a happy, sunny flow – just listen to the Argerich/Freire duo from their Salzburg recital (on DG). In Kofman and de Groote’s hands the music is marching, not flowing; it has little rubato and the beat is pronounced. All this makes the piece sound too similar to the previous one. Also, the range of emotion is very narrow. This music box is mechanical, not magical.
The nickname Lebensstürme
(“The Storms of Life”) was given to the Duo in A minor
by Diabelli: Schubert definitely had better taste. This sibling more closely resembles the Fantasia
: it is dramatic, with contrasting episodes of lightness and pressure, sunshine and thunder, hope and despair. The counterpoint is exceptionally elaborate. Unlike the Fantasia
, there are some simple solutions, some pathétique
formulae familiar from Beethoven. Also, unlike the Fantasia
, I sometimes catch myself thinking heretical thoughts about this being of maybe-not-so-heavenly-length. If it were a symphonic movement orchestral colors would help. The performance is excellent: emotional and with good momentum. The main theme evinces weight without strain; the second subject has a cold and silvery shine.
The recording is transparent if with a certain dryness. The liner-note gives good coverage of pianists’ biographies, but otherwise is not informative. This disc can serve as a nice introduction to Schubert’s four-hands music. Still, given that not everything comes alive in this recital, I cannot put it forward as a top-notch recommendation.