Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Divertissement à la Hongroise, D. 818 [37:26]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Hungarian Dances Nos 1-3 [9:53]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Boléro [14:18]
Marzena Kasprzak-Godeaux and Bernard Godeaux (piano)
rec. December 2009, Witold Lutoslawski Polish Radio Concert Studio, Warsaw, Poland
DUX 0774 [61:36]

This is a bit of an odd release in several ways. The program itself is curious: Schubert’s significant Divertissement à la Hongroise is coupled with three short Hungarian Dances by Brahms, and then the Hungarian motif is broken up by Ravel’s Boléro. The performance of the Schubert is strange, as it only occasionally feels Hungarian - at, say, 11:15 in the first movement - and the finale drags on for well over twenty minutes due to sleepiness and an insistence on every repeat. And the booklet essay is one of the most outlandish I’ve ever read.

Let’s start with the playing: for the most part, it is acceptable but bland. The central movement of Schubert’s Divertissement is supposed to be a march, but is very unmarch-like here, staid and rather dull. Jeno Jandó and Ilona Prunyi on Naxos (an all-Hungarian team) bring off the rhythms with far greater success, trim a minute off the total time, and even make the tunes sound idiomatically folksy. The two accounts also radically differ in the finale, which on Naxos takes fourteen minutes and on this new Dux release requires over twenty. Jandó and Prunyi are simply livelier and more straightforward—but, at last, one begins to appreciate the playing of Marzena Kasprzak-Godeaux and Bernard Godeaux, lyrical and subtle in ways the Hungarians are not. Their Schubert is more Schubertian. Still, need they have taken every single repeat? This is good music, but twenty minutes of it is rather excessive; the repeats are nowhere near as structurally essential as in, say, the late sonatas, and under the rather soporific influence of Kasprzak-Godeaux and Godeaux the music gets repetitive fast.

The Brahms Hungarian Dances (just the first three) go much better, and even demonstrate - as in Dance No 1 from 1:35-1:50 - an element of spontaneity. And best has been saved for last: Ravel’s Boléro, saved from sounding insufferably repetitive by Ravel’s skillful use of seemingly every note on the keyboard and by the Godeaux duo’s sensitivity of touch and indulgent romanticism, at last put to good use.

Now we can turn to the booklet essays, by “world-famous pianist” Valery Afanassiev. They are spectacularly bizarre. One is called “Schubert” and the other “Brahms,” but ironically the only work on the program which is actually mentioned at all in the booklet is Ravel’s Boléro! The “Schubert” essay, composed in a sort of hyper-intellectual stream-of-consciousness style, briefly discusses Schubert (two sentences) before turning to Spinoza’s ideas about good and evil, Heraclitus’s remarks on justice in the universal order, comparisons between Beethoven dances and paintings of village life, Freudian interpretations of the word ‘unheimlich’ (“which may be translated as follows: uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly”), and whether or not ‘heimlich’ is “even more uncanny.” And that is just the first of four pages on “Schubert.” Later we are treated to analyses of how the Japanese write history, the inability of Nietzsche to eliminate pity, and the startling fact that “the tune” in Boléro “is different” from a Schubert tune. Oh, really?

The Brahms essay is slightly shorter, and only five of the paragraphs omit the word “Brahms,” but our voyage is just as exuberantly bizarre. Here is the first sentence: “A London friend of mine maintains that every novel has its own voice.” As a London resident extensively educated in American and English literature, I can reassure Mr Afanassiev that, in fact, voice is an essential property of all writing, as essential as, for example, using words. A novel without a voice would be like music without tones. Even assuming that what is meant is that every novel has a unique voice, the statement is still akin to saying that every finger has its own fingerprint. I wonder if Mr Afanassiev’s friend in London has made that discovery, too.

At any rate, the essay then goes on to say that the most characteristically Brahmsian instruments are the clarinet and the cello, which is a pity as neither appears on this recording. It compares various composers to buildings (“Wagner might be represented by a medieval castle”), fantasizes about time-traveling and falling victim to Beethoven’s ill-temper, misunderstands Shostakovich as “hysterical frenzy,” quotes rather a lot of Chekhov, remarks that “Leonardo [da Vinci] stands apart in the history of humanity,” and finally concludes with a one-sentence paragraph which tells us: “Brahms’ late works are more akin to silence than to sounds.” Which is a pity as Brahms’ late works do not appear on this recording either.

It is rather depressing to report that the essays are the most memorable part of the release. The Godeaux duo (Godeux?) plays well, if not with as much Hungarian vigor as Jandó and Prunyi, and their Boléro is really very nice. The recorded sound is perfectly good, the cover painting gorgeous. But it is Valery Afanassiev’s essay to which I will be returning, for laughs more than anything else. I cannot help thinking that he was pulling some kind of prank on the performers. Did they get a chance to read this nonsense? One wonders if, to borrow a pop culture catchphrase, Marzena Kasprzak-Godeaux and Bernard Godeaux have been punk’d.

Brian Reinhart

Graceful pianism, but the hyper-intellectual train wreck of a liner essay is more memorable.