“FRANZ SCHUBERT: Piano Four Hands, Volume 1” = Trois Marches Militaires; Andantino Varié in B Minor; Duo in A Minor “Lebensstürme,”; Four Ländler; Fantasia in F Minor – Min Kwon and Robert Lehrbaumer, piano – MSR Classics

“FRANZ SCHUBERT: Piano Four Hands, Volume 1” = Trois Marches Militaires, Op. 51, D. 733; Andantino Varié in B Minor, Op. 84 No. 1, D. 823; Duo in A Minor “Lebensstürme,” Op. 144, D. 947; Four Ländler, D. 841; Fantasia in F Minor, Op. 103, D. 940 – Min Kwon and Robert Lehrbaumer, piano – MSR Classics MS 1345 [Distr. by Albany], 61:52 ***(1/2):

Pianist Robert Lehrbaumer’s notes to this recording observe a happy paradox of Schubert’s four-hand piano music. While it springs from the quaint and cozy tradition of Hausmusik, Schubert managed to create music for the consumption of amateur musicians that is nonetheless at the pinnacle of piano-duet literature. Two examples are included on the current disc, the Duo in A Minor and the Fantasia in F Minor, both works of Schubert’s last year (1828). Like the composer’s Marches Militaires and Grand Duo Sonata, the Fantasia was written for his pupil Countess Karoline Esterhazy, whom, along with her sister Marie, Schubert taught on and off again beginning in the summer of 1818. Schubert dedicated the somber Fantasia to Karoline, reported to be his unattainable love object.

Fortunately, this disc doesn’t place all Schubert’s most prized creative eggs in one basket. Along with the two masterworks of 1828 are lighter fare, including those marches of Schubert’s first summer at the Esterhazy estate. Marche Militaire No. 1 is, of course, one of Schubert’s greatest hits, but its companions form a satisfying little suite since the second is a slow march that, in Lehrbaumer’s words, represents the “festive side of the military.” The third, marked Allegro moderato, is up-tempo again but with a less brilliant character than that of the opening march. In the current performance, it’s taken at about the same tempo as the first, marked Allegro vivace, with the result that it seems a touch hectic, too driven.

This problem returns in the Fantasia, which is taken at a generally fast pace and with less dynamic shading than is ideal. The opening and closing pages, near-tragic in feeling, are thus robbed of some of their mystery and pathos, while the fugue is stiff, unyielding. Not coincidentally, it seems, this is the case in two of the works where Min Kwon assumes the primo role.

In democratic fashion, Robert Lehrbaumer takes the primo part in the more laid-back Andantino Varié and Four Ländler, which manage to smile in these performances. Of the two, the first work is the more memorable, leveraging (as they say in the business world) Schubert’s considerable gifts at variations writing. The Ländler are less showy, the most interesting being the second in A-flat major, where the anacrusis, followed by heavily accented downbeats in each measure, tricks the ear into hearing those downbeats almost as syncopations, giving the work a stomping pesante flavor.

That leaves the long sonata-form movement known as “Lebensstürme.” Probably, it’s part of a projected sonata that would have taken form like the Grand Duo Sonata of 1824. Scholars suppose that the Rondo in A Major, D. 951, would have constituted the finale of this unfinished sonata, but that’s conjecture. So we’re left with two wonderful but unconnected single movements. In fact, in order to give the Duo in A Minor more selling power, music publisher Anton Diabelli cooked up the nickname “Lebensstürme” (“Life’s Storms”) when he brought it out in 1840, and the name stuck. It’s a stormily dramatic work, so maybe the name isn’t an unfortunate one after all. Leavened by a typically Schubertian second melody that’s pure song, the Duo in A Minor is painted on a vast canvas that calls Bruckner to mind. In this performance, the tight rhythmic control and dynamic intensity which Kwon and Lehrbaumer bring to the piece are welcome; the drama is palpable.

So this first volume is a good start though not all of the interpretations are equally effective. The very fine performance of the Duo is offset by a less-than-magical Fantasy, which Lehrbaumer considers the peak of four-hand piano compositions. It’s a shame the performance doesn’t match his verdict.

No such reservations about MSR’s recording, set down at the Nicholas Music Center of Rutgers University, where the performers serve on the piano faculty. The sound is full, spacious, and accurate, faithfully capturing the differences in approach of our two pianists.

-Lee Passarella

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