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Poetik des Untergangs
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse - Poème chorégraphique (1919/20) [12:20]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884/85) [42:10]
Klavierduo Stenzl
Rec. 13-15 September 2018, Ehrbar Saal, Vienna, Austria.
GENUIN GEN20719 [54:30]

Recordings of familiar music played in less familiar settings have become somewhat familiar in recent years, with chamber music versions of everything from Mozart to Mahler now easily to be found in the catalogues. The two works here are famous as orchestral music, but their appearance here is more than justified. Both pieces were premièred in performances involving their composers in their two-piano versions just days prior to their first orchestral appearences. Added to this, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony had this première with the composer together with Ignaz Brüll in the very hall where this recording was made 130 years later on Ehrbar grand pianos from 1877, so we’re getting as close to time travel as we can in this particular release.

Hans-Peter and Volker Stenzl freely admit that “these piano versions do not offer the rich palette of colours characteristic of the large romantic orchestra”, but these are both enjoyable performances in their own right. I tend to approach such recordings with an open mind and no expectations of a comparable experience to the orchestral version, but in both cases was pleasantly surprised at how satisfying and indeed colourful the results are here. The instruments used have a softer sound and less brilliant timbre than modern grand pianos, but this is by no means a disadvantage to my ears. There are sonorities created here that you won’t hear anywhere else, and the overall result is a kind of atmosphere that exudes ‘authenticity’, whatever that might be, but in this case I would define as credible and convincing music making.

Ravel’s La Valse is a strange and surreal piece in its own right, but the soft sounds made at the opening here are unearthly and suitably unsettling. The Stenzls are very good at working with the soft sonorities of these instruments, and while dynamic contrast is also not the most extreme you can feel the boundaries being explored in music written in an entirely different era to when they were built. Rubato and expression, lightness of touch where required and violence are all present, there are some magical moments where running scales are allowed to resonate with pedals held, and at the moment supreme around 10:26 in this recording you can almost feel the instruments bursting at the seams, though the extra noises are no doubt fingernails sweeping those keyboards.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony returns home then, in this recording. That 1885 première was quite well documented, the critic Eduard Hanslick, acting as one of the page-turners, reportedly having said on hearing the first movement: "For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.” This is not the impression given by the players here, whose pace is relatively stately. There is a little shock to be had here, with the reinstatement of four introductory bars that Brahms later rejected, so you won’t immediately recognise the work. This is an interpretation that thrives on this movement’s more intimate passages, the forward momentum being arguably held back a little too much too often. To be honest I quite enjoy it, but be prepared to bathe rather than be bowled along. The Andante moderato second movement is again somewhat stately, but there is plenty to be relished in the character of sustain in the pianos, the sound never being allowed to die entirely during those short chords in the opening section. The pleasant resonance of the hall also comes into its own here, and the Ehrbar Saal does prove to be a beautiful and well-suited space for such a recording.

There are some magical effects created by these Ehrbar instruments. There is a bit of a ‘twang’ in some of the mid-upper register, but the sonorities are by no means thin or unpleasant. The quality of sustain that they have being exploited by these players is the trade-off we have to live with in playing that doesn’t seek out urgency or too much drama in the music in the first two movements, though tempi here are perfectly in line with most orchestral versions. Perhaps I’m just subconsciously expecting more momentum from such compact forces. Brahms’ harmonic tensions and contrasts of texture are more than enough to keep the mind busy, and the results are fascinating. The Presto giocoso third movement is more sprightly, though the tempo here is again more measured than helter-skelter, allowing us to hear into the music and appreciate its refinement and nuances, as well as managing to generate some excitement at ‘tutti’ passages and climaxes. The final Allegro energico e passionato is truly dark and brooding in its opening, propelling us into those passacaglia variations as into a narrative, the ending of which is far distant and the road to be taken paved with difficulties. Throwing this music onto piano sonorities almost inevitably calls Beethoven to mind, and there is something exploratory here that reinforces that feeling, alongside those allusions to be found throughout the symphony.

Though rather special for its venue and instruments, this is a recording with its competitors, though I could find only one for comparison. Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn recorded this along with Brahms’ Third Symphony on the Naxos label (review) and this is a good version, with a much greater antiphonal effect between the two pianos when compared to this Genuin recording, which has a more natural concert-hall perspective. This is a bit like comparing chalk and cheese, but for the unique effect of those Ehrbar instruments I would prefer Klavierduo Stenzl. This is a release that may not immediately attract, but if you have the chance give it a try - there is more here to the ear than meets the eye.

Dominy Clements

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