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Beethoven eroica SOMMCD0637
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op. 55 'Eroica' (arr. piano duo, Franz Xaver Scharwenka) [51:50]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Sechs Stücke in kanonischer Form Op. 56 (arr. piano duo, Claude Debussy) [16:27]
Tessa Uys, Ben Schoeman (piano duo)
rec. The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, UK, 24-25 August 2020
SOMM SOMMCD0637 [68:26]

I am on record as a fan of transcriptions, especially large orchestral works in versions for piano or piano duo. I am also an enthusiast of the rather neglected composer Franz Scharwenka, the transcriber here – another reason for wanting to review this disc. This is the first recording of Scharwenka’s version. Of his other two-pianist versions of Beethoven’s symphonies, the Seventh was released in 2014 by Duo Trenkner/Speidel on MDG Gold; it will be an interesting comparison when this duo have recorded it.

Beethoven’s Third has been arranged many times for various forces. Just over 100 years after it was originally written, Franz Scharwenka published his arrangement for piano duo. It is not a “workmanlike” transcription. The uncompromisingly difficult piano writing throughout is clearly meant for two virtuosi.

The first movement Allegro con brio, with its loud proclamation, starts off with a shock. From the outset, the writing is a superb emulation of the orchestral textures transferred to twenty fingers. Scharwenka was not afraid to use different registers in his effort to turn an orchestral work into a piano duet. Tremolandos may be a lazy solution in a transcription, but here so much is going on besides that their astute use makes perfect sense. The work develops organically from the opening. It goes through a number of transformations and key changes, often with unexpected interjections and modulations. For example, it is fascinating to follow the quasi-fugal passages around eight minutes in, perhaps easier to hear than in the full orchestral version. More restrained moments are brilliantly handled and, when the music requires it, the jollity is obvious. The pianists clearly enjoy working together and making a super noise! This is marvellous stuff.
The Funeral march is no less incredible. There is a palpable sense of sadness but the underlying heroic undercurrent also comes across splendidly. Again, the orchestral textures are finely realised for piano duo. The performance is magnificently judged, the timing is spot on, and the muffled funereal music from start is very melancholic but not depressing. This slowly evolves and, as the work develops, the atmosphere lightens. Around four-and-a-half minutes in, a more reflective and rather beautiful middle section emerges from the gloom. The ongoing sense of melancholy alternates with the powerful outbursts from both pianists. The strong centre at 6:15-6:36 is handled very well, and the increasingly agitated sadness that returns afterwards works gorgeously. After this fizzles out, there are strange harmonic departures as the music once more grows in strength, with outbursts of trills and a sort of fugal passage. After this loud, impassioned section, shadowy hints of the opening return only to be supplanted by some wonderfully powerful music from about 9:30. This slowly quietens and the movement returns to the march-like opening music before cheering up. The last moments are an evolution of what has been heard previously. The piece ends quietly and sadly but with hints of a resolution. It is all very evocatively played.

In the utterly bonkers Scherzo, Beethoven’s treacherous passages for the horns, transferred cleanly to the piano, are fully intact and sound just as difficult for the pianists as they do for the horns in the original version. The interesting high-up chords at about 1:10 are a pleasant surprise, clearer than their orchestral equivalent. Despite the difficulties, the pianists rocket up and down the keyboards in thirds. The more relaxed central trio, with its bucolic nature, also works exquisitely. There is a palpable sense of wanting to rush on back to crazy skittish music. Tempo, perfectly judged, is marginally faster than the average timing for the orchestral version. I love it how the opening theme re-emerges from the ending of the Trio and bounces off to a cheerful, manic conclusion.
The Allegro molto finale is great, in particular the variations on the theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. After the loud opening, the skeleton of the tune starts up and is gradually fleshed out. All of the myriad complexities of the piece show up magnificently. The overall atmosphere one is rather cheerful: this music certainly makes you smile. As elsewhere, the idea of the orchestra is conveyed delightfully as the music is thoughtfully and cleverly arranged for this medium. With headphones on, it is also easy to determine which pianist is doing what: the passages where one pianist is chasing the other (for example at about 1:30) sound splendid! The main theme is slowly mutated through various guises and clever harmonic shifts – a masterly arrangement. The more subdued passages in the central part (again fugal in nature) work especially well here as the theme is pinged from one pianist to the other. The calm passage at 7:00-8:30 slowly winds up the tension to the very powerful statement of the main theme. This is deftly handled, and the next part, where a more relaxed passage emerges, is equally noteworthy. This relaxed Poco andante section does not last long. The work ends in a blaze of powerful writing for both pianists (or full orchestra, marked Presto), a life-affirming blast of power and jollity.

This transcription is rife with difficulties, but the performers are well up to the challenge. They do an utterly superb job with the piece. The tempo throughout all four movements is well judged and the timing is close to that for a standard orchestral version of the work; that, to my ears, is always a good thing. The innumerable details, key changes and clever harmonic shifts are captured perfectly by the arranger. Sometimes he even adds to the fun by changing tiny details to make the work more pianistic. I cannot envisage a better performance of this work, and I would love to hear it live in concert some day.

The remainder of this disc is taken up by Debussy’s arrangement of Schumann’s Six Studies in Canonic Form, originally for pedal piano, published as Op.56. Even by Debussy’s time, that instrument had fallen out of favour. This was perhaps the impetus to arrange this fascinating set of pieces for two pianos.

The first piece sounds like a refugee from Bach’s output. The interlaced textures ripple elegantly between the pianists, and the sprightly theme with its attendant trills is really rather jolly. The tempo direction is “not too fast”, and here the pacing is perfect. The second piece is a different kettle of fish altogether. Again it sounds Bachian but the atmosphere, at least to begin with, is much sadder and more reflective. The third piece is perhaps more distinctive Schumann; a rather catchy and infectious tune bounces around happily with some lovely accompaniment. The piece marked Innig (heartfelt or intimate) has some lovely bell-like effects at the opening which continue throughout. It may not be particularly heartfelt but it certainly is passionate, and it manages to pack an awful lot of happiness in its three minutes. The penultimate piece is cheerful and more jumpy – more "Florestan" than “Eusabius”. The pianists react to each other’s every whim, and the end result is wonderful. The sixth piece is a more restrained Adagio, with Bach-like harmonies and clever harmonic inventions. This is fine music.I hope that the recording helps to publicise how good it is! Debussy certainly knew how to arrange these works: they sound far better in this version than the performances I have heard on the organ.

I was blown away by this magnificent recording. The sound is fabulous, the cover notes informative and the playing exemplary. Full marks to all concerned. I am waiting impatiently for the next volume.

Jonathan Welsh

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