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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arrangements for Piano Duet 5
Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major, Op. 38 ‘Spring’ (arr. by Robert & Clara Schumann) [32:54]
Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120 (arr. by Robert Schumann) [27:18]
Eckerle Piano Duo
rec. 2017/18, Konzerthaus Karlsruhe, Germany (world premiere recordings)
NAXOS 8.572881 [60:20]

As noted in my review of volume 4 of this series, I have been following it, and I was looking forward to the recording of the two-piano version of my favourite Schumann symphony, ‘Spring’. Naxos and the Eckerle Piano Duo have obliged.

The piano duet version of the 1st symphony followed quickly on the heels of the orchestral version, as pointed out by the chronology in the notes. It is really interesting what level of detail the Schumann’s were able to fit into this transcription. The first movement with its infectious and memorable main theme comes across pretty much intact. Some of the textures are redistributed to the top and bottom of the keyboards but there is no damage to the musical argument.

The opening Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro starts in a suitably restrained manner before setting off at a rate of knots. The playing is marvellous throughout, and there is much joyfulness apparent in the duo’s interpretation which adds to the whole cheerful aspect of the work. The following Larghetto is much more restrained. The opening passages, full of yearning, are wonderfully phrased. The playing is gorgeous as the slow meditative melody develops. This movement, not very long, is played here in such a way that you wish it were longer. The galumphing Scherzo is a superb piece of crazy writing for orchestra. All of the details are present and correct, and the choice of tempo is spot on. The central, more sensible sounding Trio section makes for a good contrast to the bouncing rhythms of the opening as it winds its way back towards the opening theme. The structure here is a little complicated, with some very fast playing about four minutes onwards before things settle down again for the more restrained part before the quiet closing bars. The transition is handled perfectly and does not seem jarring. I think this scherzo works particularly well for piano duet: it seems to suit the medium well.

The finale starts with a powerful opening statement before breaking into a dance-like passage which darts around the keyboard in a most cheery way. The mood then becomes more austere before the dance-like music returns. I really like the playing here. The tempo direction is Allegro animato e grazioso, followed perfectly. As previously, Robert and Clara clearly knew what they were doing. It is hard to believe that this piece was conceived for any other medium that this one. I like the way the dance-like tune from the opening returns about 2/3 of the way through after a complex development section, and a quiet and peaceful short passage about six minutes in. This serves as a useful bridge to the closing minutes of the movement which is overwhelmingly positive in mood. The happy feelings of spring continue unabated throughout this movement; it forms a fitting conclusion to this happy and joyful piece.

There is some interesting information in the notes. For example, it transpires that Robert found working on this transcription hard because he was often ill, and that Clara took over when he was not feeling like work. I am glad she did. Between them, they made a super job of arranging this piece. The Piano Duo Eckerle have also done the score proud. This is music to put a smile on your face whether in this arrangement or the original orchestral version.

The much later 4th symphony exists, as is well known, in two orchestral versions. It is the latter revision which Schumann arranged for piano duet. To start with, this is a different kettle of fish altogether after the jollity of the preceding work. The opening is sombre and dark but this transfers well to the piano duet medium. This dark mood does not stay for long. Faster music breaks through about 1:30 in, with an earworm of a tune which meanders nicely between the performers, skilfully arranged by Robert. Once this faster music starts, the darkness is mostly dispelled and the atmosphere is generally much lighter in character. There are other darker repetitions of the theme dotted throughout this movement but personally I think this is, on the whole, a happy work. The performers make the most of it. The contrasts between the darker and lighter parts show up well despite the lack of strings, woodwinds and so forth. The outburst of happiness with the amplification of the main theme about six and a half minutes in works particularly well. The following more restrained music sounds perfectly suited for this arrangement, and is flawlessly played. The ending is powerful and positive, and very fast indeed.

The very short Romanze (marked Ziemlich langsam) which follows is much more restrained in nature. It is rather mournful at the beginning. It reminds me of the march movement from the Piano Quintet, Op.44 in tone, before it launches into some more sunny material about 1:30 in. This serves as an excellent contrast and the trills which occur with great frequency in this movement transfer well to this medium. Again, all details are present and correct, and the movement is very well played.

The following Scherzo is again rather short and full of insistent chords. This is another bouncy piece but it is only in this movement that I missed the power of the full orchestra. That said, as a piece of piano duet music, it is played very well. If you were unaware of the original version, you would think it was written for this medium. The contrasting Trio in the middle bounds along rather less boisterously than the opening section. It is perfectly played with the inflection in the off beats nicely done. The powerful opening theme ends to conclude this cheerful short movement but the quiet ending is slow and something of a surprise.

The finale leads straight on from the preceding movement. It starts slowly before speeding up fast. The slightly sinister opening soon brightens, and the infectious and memorable main theme starts off. This is Schumann at his most energetic and playful. Of special note is the very bouncy sections that occur from around two and a half minutes in, which work excellently here. After a repeat of the opening material, there is a clever transition passage to a minor key where things become a little darker (about five minutes in). This gradually lightens to a sort of fugal passage before the happier music is varied, mixed up. We have some very animated and fast playing to conclude the movement. I do like this movement and, as throughout this symphony, the playing is perfect. Tempi are spot on, the musicality is brilliant and everything works very well.

This is another very fine disc of wonderful music, thoughtfully played and cleanly recorded by the Eckerle Duo. I cannot understand why these transcriptions have not been recorded before. They work very well indeed. The fascinating notes and replete with interesting details. The running time is what you would expect of orchestral performances of these two works. I shall be returning to this disc often. Full marks to the Eckerle Piano Duo and to Naxos! I already look forward to the 6th and 7th volumes, hinted at in the notes. I am rather interested to know what will be on them.

Jonathan Welsh

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