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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1829)
Symphony No. 5 (arr. for piano duet, Franz Xaver Scharwenka)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Andante and Variations for two pianos Op. 46
Camille Saint-SaŽns (1835-1921)
Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, op. 35
Tessa Uys, Ben Schoeman (piano duet)
rec. 2020/21, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
Beethoven Symphonies Volume 2
SOMM SOMMCD0650 [65]

Hot on the heels of the first volume of this enterprising series comes volume 2, this time including what is perhaps the most famous symphony of all time, Beethoven’s 5th, here given its world premiere recording in the transcription for piano duet by Franz Xavier Scharwenka.

As with the previous volume and the “Eroica” (see my earlier review here), the 5th needs no introduction or apologies and Scharwenka expects both pianists to be virtuosi. The opening chords are surprisingly not written for double octaves as might have been expected; Scharwenka saves those for later on when even more firepower is required. Again, throughout this transcription, multiple solutions are offered to deal with the problem of arranging a work for full orchestra for piano and all is superbly realised by the duo. The opening tempo for the first movement is perhaps a little slower than expected at the start but that is more than made up for later as both pianists flamboyantly navigate the complex writing. Also, as before, the notation is subtly arranged to make it playable on two pianos and this has the added bonus of making some detail clearer than in the orchestral version.

The second movement comes across very well too – all the details are present and presented via the medium of twenty fingers. The contrasts are beautifully pointed out: a sense of calm serenity pervades this music and the pianists respond excellently to the challenge. The rippling accompaniment starting at 2:39 - but also occurring elsewhere - is cleverly written and perfectly judged. There some surprises here too; harmonies are clarified and details that perhaps would normally be lost are brought to the fore. Both pianists make a superb job of this movement and it contains just as much drama as a performance for full orchestra. The fortissimo sections make an excellent contrast to the nervier and quieter moments and the ending of the movement, with its defiant chords, is splendid.

The Scherzo follows with its weird march like chords and repeated loud interruptions, all of which are again played with aplomb. The crazy scrambling section from about two minutes onwards sounds just perfect and the cunning interjections by the second pianist (I presume) that ultimately derail this trail of music are wittily done. The build up to the cheerful, blazing finale is excellently judged and that final ‘Allegro’ part starts with a bang, with bagfuls of virtuosity from both participants and continues in the same vein. There are lots of powerful tremolandos here, judiciously used and all of which add to the drama. The build up to the quieter section at about five minutes is excellently controlled and sounds absolutely right. The ending where Beethoven applies the brakes to the music before restarting again with renewed vigour is miraculously realised – listen out for the notes originally on the flutes in the last two minutes sounding almost woodwind-like but on a piano. The ending with sustained loud and powerful virtuosity from both performers is just brilliant. This is an awesome performance of a magnificent transcription; comparisons with Liszt’s transcription (S464 no.5) are perhaps inevitable but here Scharwenka has the advantage of using twice as many fingers so the overall effect is somewhat “fuller” than Liszt’s absolutely astounding and craftily realised version. This is another example of such a skilful transcription that you almost forget that the original was for full orchestra. I’ve run out of superlatives here, but suffice it to say that this performance is absolutely top notch and the joyfulness and intelligence of the performers and the committed nature of the playing make it absolutely worth hearing.

I should say that the Beethoven transcription is for piano four hands and played on a rather splendid sounding Fazoli piano whereas the remainder of the disc is played on two Steinway model Ds. There is little difference in the recording level or sounding between the instruments and I am more than happy to listen to either.

In a well-thought-through contrast to the blazing conclusion of the Beethoven transcription, Schumann’s rarely heard variations published as Op.46b follows next on this disc. This work exists in two versions – it was originally written for two pianos, two cellos and a horn but following a suggestion from Mendelssohn, Schumann later revised for just two pianos as heard here. These open quietly with a rather lovely slightly melancholy tune that receives a whole gamut of variation from beautifully quiet and reflective ones (heard at the outset of the piece) to bouncy march like ones (as at 4’50’’) and all points in between. As with the preceding Beethoven, the playing throughout is very intelligent and the two pianists react well to each other’s playing, producing a result full of musicality. The slower variations are deeply affecting and the quasi-funeral march one at about six minutes is especially good; the way it segues into the following faintly sad variation is perfectly handled. Schumann was, as usual, channelling his inner Florestan and Eusebius in the composition of this work but there is perhaps a slight preference for the latter, as overall the work has a dreamy and melancholy mood. Surprisingly, towards the end of the piece, Schumann brings back the opening theme completely unadorned, and uses it to generate a suitably fitting conclusion to this wonderful piece. I have to say that prior to hearing this recording I was only dimly aware of this work but on repeated listening, I have really grown to appreciate its many wonderful turns of phrase and clever writing.

The disc concludes with Saint-SaŽns’ epic variations on a theme by Beethoven. As I have said before, this is a work that I have previously had issues with; I have no idea why but it just doesn’t strike me as the composers’ best work and it has always seemed a little laboured. However, I should say that a previous recording that I reviewed (here) changed my view and I am now much fonder of the piece. The opening is mysterious and only hints at the theme which he uses (from the Trio of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s E flat Op.31 no. 3 Sonata – sometimes nicknamed “The Hunt”) but once the theme emerges, it is subjected to ten contrasted variations including a complex, virtuosic fugue. The opening variation is a scurrying, “catch me if you can” treatment of the theme in scales and is here played very fast, with plenty of wit and character. The following variation is a complete contrast: a rather lovely lyrical treatment of the theme with some clever darker episodes and throughout some nice examples of the pianists bouncing off one another to create a spontaneous atmosphere. Thirdly, a strange inverted version of the theme; again, the Scherzo like character here is abundantly obvious and the playing is excellent. Variation 4 is extremely entertaining: bouncy repeated chords and much interaction between the pianists who again spark well off each other. Variation 5 is again a change of pace and the difference from the previous one is very marked. Here, trills and some very pretty playing join to make a splendid little creation with plenty of harmonic invention and humour. We return to scales for the following variation, with some added arpeggios for good measure. I particularly like the way the ends of phrases are rounded off here – this is a most astute and intelligent performance. I especially enjoyed the mock funeral march that is variation 7; this is just weird in comparison to the other, more conventional variations here - the playing is almost hysterical with grief and matches the mood of this variation perfectly. As the work progresses into variation 8, it becomes more and more difficult to follow the progress of the variations but we have a restatement of the spectral opening that gradually evolves to the complex fugue that is variation 9. This is the core of the work and is perhaps the composer’s reaction to Beethoven’s Eroica variations (Op.35). Here, there are plenty of notes for both performers to negotiate and they do so with the same high level of virtuosity and commitment that they display throughout this disc. This is such a witty take on the theme and to my ears the way that the textures are handled hints at the Scharwenka transcription from earlier in the disc and thus fits in very well here. This variation leads directly into variation 10, the conclusion of the work and featuring the tune neatly divided between the two performers who give a sparkling performance. Right at the very end, the theme emerges almost unadorned as if to remind us how far the music has travelled during the progress of this marvellous work.

As I said for volume 1, this is a magnificent recording; the sound quality is superb, the cover notes are excellent and the playing is exemplary throughout. Full marks to all concerned; I am once again waiting impatiently for the next volume.

Jonathan Welsh

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