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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata in D major K 448/375a (1781) [22:02]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie for piano four hands in F minor, D. 940 (1828) [17:10]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/György KURTÁG (b.1926)
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV 614 [2:39]
Nunn komm’ der Heiden Heiland BWV 599 [1:41]
Piano Duo Scholtes & Janssens
rec. 19 & 20 September 2020, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, studio 1, The Netherlands

There can’t be many programmes with a pair of works on which there has for a long time been a pretty universal consensus about its best recording. The Mozart Sonata K. 448 and Schubert Fantasie D. 940 were recorded by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu at The Maltings in Snape, the disc of which was released by CBS Records in 1985, since becoming available in its original coupling with a timing of 42:04 on Sony Classics, though there does appear to have been an edition that adds Mozart’s Fantasy K. 608 and the Variations K. 501. It seems a bit unfair to be dragging this now elderly classic to the fore before even mentioning this recording on Challenge Records by Piano Duo Scholtes & Janssens (Lestari Scholtes & Gwylim Janssens), who were but babes in arms when it first appeared on record shop shelves. Ignoring the little Bach/Kurtág epilogue, this programme does however inevitably have to go head to head with what for most collectors and music lovers has become a desert island favourite.

While the sound of that 1985 CBS disc is lovely, the Challenge balance is closer and more detailed without being too ‘in your face’. Interestingly there is a little ‘chorus’ effect when the two pianos in the Mozart play in unison, indicating that there are some fractions of difference between the two instruments. They are by no means out of tune and this is not a criticism, but the feeling of two high performance instruments with slightly different characters working together is palpable. The first movement of the Mozart is an Allegro con spirito that needs to have a rhythmic punch and forward momentum that is very much in evidence in this recording. Mozart’s witty little inflections and throwaway gestures are done with good humoured high spirits here, and there are thankfully few if any mannerisms that might annoy on repeated listening. The Andante that follows is paced a little more swiftly than Perahia/Lupu, and the interpretation had me seeking out the score to see how those ornaments are notated. With their brisker tempo there is less of an opportunity for Scholtes/Janssens to spread the ornaments and trills out in quite the way done by Perahia/Lupu, but this challenge to the imprinted version soon resolved itself. Their approach is also one with more inner dynamic contrasts so, while the atmosphere is not quite as magical in places as with Perahia/Lupu, these players are in many ways more faithful to the score. This is beautiful music whichever recording you happen to be hearing, and if you are in the mood for a different kind of conversation between the pianos then Scholtes/Janssens create one with warmth and conviviality. The final Allegro molto is done with superbly rousing joie de vivre, picking out Mozart’s subtle and sophisticated harmonic progressions without too much rubato. There is an odd little cadenza shoehorned in not far off the halfway point that isn’t in the score I have, but as an echo of the fermatas Mozart writes in at other points it seems to work well enough.

Schubert’s Fantasie is one of many masterpieces he managed to produce in his final year, and if there is one difference here between Perahia/Lupu it is the tempo. Taken more swiftly, Scholtes/Janssens shave a good two minutes from the timing of the older recording, but once tuned in you realise that there are some advantages to be had from this approach. Schubert’s dramatic narrative becomes more sharply etched, and what before was poetic reflection in a slightly fuzzy halo of nostalgia becomes something with more shock value. Contrasts are more theatrical, and the scale of the piece seems to become more symphonic. Scholtes & Janssens avoid melodrama, but this is certainly a performance that ignites the imagination, pointing towards fragility and defiance as well as that animated enthusiasm for dance in candle-lit Vienna. Climaxes and key emotional points are all hit convincingly in this recording, and I am delighted to have been able to add it to my store of Schubert highlights.

This programme ends with György Kurtág’s arrangements of two Bach chorales. These are nice to have, but they add a funereal conclusion to a programme that has been so full of life. Given my affection for that Murray Perahia/Radu Lupu recording of these great works by Mozart and Schubert, I have been pleasantly surprised by how soon I was sold on these performances by Piano Duo Scholtes & Janssens. These recordings can certainly live side by side in any collection, and I have a feeling the newer version might easily end up getting more airplay.

Dominy Clements

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