Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasia in F minor, D.940 Op.103 (1828) [18:06]
Variations sur un thème original in A flat major, D.813 Op.35 (1824) [18:17]
Rondo in A major, D.951 Op.107 (1828) [11:38]
Duo in A minor (Lebensstürme), D.947 Op. posth. 144 (1828) [16:42]
Irena Kofman, André de Groote (piano)
rec. May 2008, Sint-Vincentius-Chappel, Ghent.
TALENT DOM 2911 119 [64:43]
It’s a bit unfortunate that this release has to go up against another Schubert piano duet disc, that with Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne on Hyperion CDA67665. Oleg Ledeniov’s review of this disc was generally positive and sympathetic, but the Hyperion CD does rather seal the deal of this release struggling to achieve ‘top-notch recommendation’ status.
Taken in isolation this Talent release is actually rather good for most of its duration. The Fantasia in F minor D940 is played with a nice touch. It doesn’t have quite the lyrical charm of Lewis/Osborne, but most of the ingredients are present, including the stormy drama and wide dynamic contrasts. The storms are sometimes a good deal slower than with Osborne/Lewis, and this results in a timing a good two and a half minutes longer. I suppose the whole thing might be called ‘chunky’ rather than flowing, but this is a relative rather than a pejorative term – I can imagine there might be those who prefer the less overtly elegant approach of Kofman/de Groote, but their more solid phrasing does create a different, somewhat less magical atmosphere, and for me ultimately a less attractive one.
The Variations sur un thème original in A flat major D813 is another direct confrontation with the Osborne/Lewis team, and pretty much the same story applies when comparing. Kofman and de Groote are heavy and forthright from the start; the lightness and wit of Osborne/Lewis is preferable. There is a nice touch in the variations, and taken in isolation this again is a performance which will give pleasure. When doing an A/B comparison it is always the Hyperion disc which comes up trumps however, contrasting swiftness as well as transparency where the present duo keep a fairly steady and less forward-moving momentum. If this were a concert performance I wouldn’t feel so bad about having fallen asleep: even where the variations generate a certain amount of excitement the clarity of inner line and witty inflections of Osborne/Lewis keep up far more interest.
With a misprint in the booklet, the Rondo in A major D951 follows rather than Lebensstürme, which concludes the programme. I quite like Kofman and de Groote’s quiet restraint in this Rondo, and with the recording bringing out good sonority in the lower range of the instrument Schubert’s intriguing harmonies come through well. Lebensstürme is a tricky piece to bring off really magnificently, and there are numerous questions which can be resolved satisfactorily in absolute musical terms, but which in hindsight might not have been such a good idea. For instance, do you make much of a ritenuto at the end of the first statement, like Kofman/deGroote, or do you just ‘round it off’ and push onwards like Osborne/Lewis? I’m afraid once this ponderous change of gear was introduced in the first statement there didn’t seem to be much hope left for the piece taking flight ever again in this recording, and the feeling of lugubrious wading through sticky toffee is never entirely dispelled. The driving syncopations which need to kick out and become subsumed beneath that heavenly second subject are always an uphill drag. The perception of getting slower hangs over the entire performance like a dark brown velvet drape. There are nice touches in the exchanges between players and the playing is technically highly proficient, but I have an uneasy feeling about the whole thing, and going back to Osborne/Lewis is like coming up for air.
This is a very nicely recorded CD, and I have little doubt that, Lebensstürme perhaps excepted, I would in all likelihood have received this release rather more warmly if I hadn’t had the Hyperion recording poking its nose in at every point and saying ‘no, not like that, like this’. Irena Kofman and André de Groote clearly have a good synergy as duo partners, and they make a finely balanced and rich sound. The piano is placed in a perfect sounding resonance, pleasantly spacious, detailed and ringing without being at all swimmy or fatiguing. As a former record shop employee I would however be pointing out the Hyperion disc has by far the preferable recording in identical repertoire. With its extra bonus pieces this choice is alas a no-brainer.
A two horse race in identical repertoire: alas with only one winner.