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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor Op.34b (1863-64) [43:03]
Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn (St Anthony Chorale) Op.56b (1873-4) [18:06]
Marie-Josèphe Jude/Jean-François Heisser (pianos)
rec. 21-23 January 2010, Chapelle de Méjan, Arles, France
LYRINX LYR 2243 [61:09]

With fine piano sound and a highly coordinated and musically gifted duo, this is the sort of programme which collectors or piano music should relish. Like a novel with a split infinitive on the first page, you do have to get over a distinct edit 23 seconds into the very first track. The acoustic of the Chapelle de Méjan is also something to which you need to become accustomed. The restricted-acoustic space is no hindrance to a remarkably rich piano sound however, and there are dynamics and power aplenty to go along with some refined and distinguished playing.
 
There are a few CDs with similar content on the market, and the one I happened to have handy was volume 3 of Naxos’s excellent complete series of Brahms’ Four Hand Piano Music, 8.553654, with Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn. This duo is not dissimilar to the Jude/Heisser duo in terms of timings in the Sonata in F minor Op.34b , the first movement being a touch more compact and onward-flowing but not to any huge extent. The Andante, un poco adagio is one place where interpretations drift apart, with Jude/Heisser emphasising the ‘Andante’, and pushing onwards where Matthies/Köhn achieve a certain Schubertian timelessness. The Scherzo is rhythmic and shouldn’t take itself too seriously. Jude/Heisser, while being a little more earthy than our comparison example, still achieve a nice sense of bounce. The profundity of the opening of the finale is searchingly explored by both teams, the development and harmonic expansion nicely paced by Jude/Heisser, who allow space for the climactic sequences and for those moments of poetic lyricism.
 
The Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn is a big favourite in its orchestral version, as well as with pianos. This release groups variations 1-3, 4 and 5, 6 and 7, 8 and finale into single tracks. This is a pain for study purposes though no real problem for casual listening, unless like me you want to dive straight for the gorgeous grazioso of Variation 7, which is 1:20 into track 8. This piece is given a more ‘orchestral’ feel by Matthies/Köhn on Naxos, helped as they are by a more generous acoustic, but also with greater dynamic layering. Take Variation 2, where you hear sharper definition between those explosive interjections and a murmuring sense of expectation. There’s also a far lighter touch in the lines and rhythmic patterns in between with Matthies/Köhn. Jude/Heisser are far less engaging, with lumpy voicing in the quieter moments, flattening everything out a bit too much for my taste. Time should stand still for the three or so minutes of that Variation 7, something achieved by Matthies/Köhn, but less so in Jude/Heisser’s rather onward-pushing interpretation. Even with its full-fat finale this is in general a less involving Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn. While you do get all of the notes in a fine performance, the mind switches to low power after a short while, in a performance which lacks ‘crackle’.
 
As mentioned at the beginning, the acoustic here is not especially exciting, and so we can’t expect too much from the multichannel SACD layer, though this does encourage a sense of further solidity in an already firmly established sound. The difference between left and right pianos, the right ‘stealing’ some of the lid of the instrument on the left but being otherwise open, is felt in the recording as it is with the Naxos version, though more in terms of colour than strength. If you already have a favourite version of these works then I fear this recording is unlikely to kick them out of bed. It’s by no means bad, and in music which I can hear over and over again I have to say I’ve enjoyed this disc’s company, just not quite as much as I’d hoped.
 
Dominy Clements