SCHUBERT Piano Duets = Allegro in A Minor “Lebensstuerme,” D. 947; Andantino varie in B Minor, D. 823, No. 2; Fugue in E Minor, D. 952; Rondo in A Major, D. 951; Variations on an Original Theme, D. 813; Fantasie in F Minor, D. 940 – Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion CDA67665, 76:06 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Recorded in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, on 12-14 February 2010, these four-hand works capture something of the immense range Schubert imbued in his salon keyboard works, ostensibly composed in Hungary for the daughters of Count Esterhazy von Galanta. Schubert turned to four-hand music in earnest around 1824, with his E Minor variations on a French song, D. 624. The opening work on this recording, the A Minor Allegro (1828; published 1840) takes an aggressive stance, similar to the posthumous C Minor Sonata, D. 958. Turbulent and episodic–hence its title from Diabelli, “the storms of life”–the large piece can become quite moody, occasionally breaking into a chorale and later, urging rippling passages in counterpoint to the dramatic outbursts that marked the beginning.
The Andantino Varie in B Minor originally formed the slow movement of an 1826 Divertissement on Original French Motifs, D. 823. Taking its cue from Mozart’s G Major Variations, K. 501, the piece enjoys a series of character transformations, almost akin to Schumann’s Kinderszenen, the imitation of toy trumpets not the least of the imaginative effects. Right hand counterpoint infiltrates both players’ parts, intimate and exquisitely delicate. The transparency of texture, perhaps in imitation of Mendelssohn, must have been the envy of Brahms. Not since the old CBS inscription by Robert and Gaby Casadesus has this luminous piece radiated such inner serenity, a real piece de resistance for Lewis and Osborne.
Schubert composed the Fugue in E Minor rather on the spot 3 June 1828, after a request from Johann Schikh for a piece of counterpoint to test on the organ at Heiligenkrenz. Often modal and angular, the E Minor Fugue looks to Bach but forward to Reger. Schubert wanted polyphonic discipline to employ in the Mass in E-flat Major, D. 950, and this audacious miniature points in novel directions. The Rondo in A Major hearkens to Beethoven’s own E Minor Sonata, Op. 90, which it echoes in harmony and the disposition of the textures in octaves. The arpeggios in the second piano often recall tenderly melodic elements in the A Major Sonata, D. 959.
The penultimate piece in this collection, the Variations on an Original Theme in A-flat Major (1824), endures as a companion piece to the ambitious Grand Duo, D. 812. The march tune that provides the impetus for this imposing work takes a turn into C Minor, and several of the eight variations hint at Impromptus with a similar dactylic pattern as a rhythmic motto. The Death and the Maiden rhythm appears, with its own nod to the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The modal shift to C Major proves as enchanting as it is ingenuous, and the closing pages ring with exultant triumph.
The F Minor Fantasie (1828) conforms to the Wanderer Fantasie and C Major Fantasie for Violin and Piano in its one-movement structure that subdivides into four harmoniously wrought sections, a model for Liszt and Schoenberg. I recall my mentor Emanuel Winternitz’s having introduced Ralph Kirkpatrick to this astounding piece so they could play it together. Osborne and Lewis intone the opening agogics of soft appoggiaturas in limpid harmony, the rhythm vaguely outlining the theme from the Ninth Symphony’s second movement. The Lento, sometimes heavy with resolute portent, also radiates an unearthly beauty. The D Major Scherzo moves at a lightning quicksilver pace, the close imitation of the parts meshing like some uncanny Viennese clock. A double fugue in strict Bach colors marks the final section, interrupted by the delicate strains of the opening material whose anguished chords suggest the conclusion of a nobly felt tragedy.