Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Allegro in A minor (Lebensstürme), D.947 (1828) [15:35]
Andantino varié in B minor D.823 No.2 [9:13]
Fugue in E minor D.952 (1828) [3:30]
Rondo in A major D.951 (1828) [11:56]
Variations on an original theme in A flat major, D.813 (1824) [17:32]
Fantasia in F minor, D.940 (1828) [18:18]
Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 12-14 February 2010
HYPERION CDA67665 [76:06]

Two of the major stars in our promising firmament of fresh talent join in this magnificent programme of Schubert duets. With their participation this Hyperion disc was always going to be a bit special, and special it is.

The door is flung open with the dramatic opening of the Allegro in A minor D947, and given the subtitle Lebensstürme or ‘Storms of Life’ by the publisher Anton Diabelli. This is a piece I happen to know inside out, having been the low bass part to a flute octet arrangement by composer René Sampson, but the dramatic two-piano recording by Evgeny Kissin and James Levine made live in Carnegie Hall and available on Sony has also been something of a reference since its release. It’s perhaps not entirely fair to compare a single piano against the thunder of two, but the difference in effect is in fact less than one might imagine, and the power and contrast produced by Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne is every bit as effective as Kissin/Levine, and with a higher degree of ensemble. The depth of two pianos is impressive, but the feeling you are listening to a single super-human pianist in this Hyperion recording is if anything even more remarkable.

Framed by two famous masterpieces, the filling to the sandwich is every bit as interesting, and if you are making new discoveries then the surprises are every bit as joyous as opening presents from a rich and generous relative. The Andantino varié in B minor D823 No.2, is a delightfully light and entertaining piece, said to have been inspired by Mozart’s duet the Variations in G major K501. The music is deceptively simple sounding, but as the excellent booklet notes by Misha Donat describe, the form is full of tonal and thematic innovation and intricacy, “one of the most perfect and beautiful of all Schubert’s duets”. The glorious D952 Fugue in E minor was written in part as a result of Schubert’s late preoccupation with fugal writing, and an invitation to perform on the famous Heilingenkreuz organ. This sits very nicely with the less imposing expression of the Rondo in A major D951, whose gentle good humour and wit is marvellously executed by the players on this recording.

On a similar grand scale to the opening and closing works on this programme, the Variations on an original theme in A flat major D813 derives from the same period as the huge Grand Duo D812. Filled with superbly technical piano writing, this went down well with audiences, though Schubert himself was more ambivalent: “...I don’t quite trust the Hungarians’ taste [and] shall leave it to... the Viennese to decide about them.” The variations cover a wide range of expression and remarkable harmonic effects, especially when searchingly exploring the minor keys and those contrasts between major and minor. Perhaps not quite as distinctively themed or with the immediacy of impact as with Lebensstürme or the Fantasia this is still a work worth getting to know well, and the Lewis/Osborne duet are as good a pair of guides as one could imagine.

Central to any programme of Schubert piano duets is the Fantasia in F minor D940, which in all cases will have to compete with mine and many others’ all-time desert-island recording, that from 1985 with Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, formerly on CBS and now available from Sony. Lewis and Osborne give this pairing a good run for their money and their performance is similarly expressive and beautifully phrased. There is always a risk of the older recording being more established in the memory and acquiring a kind of ‘definitive’ status which will almost invariably be to the disadvantage of newcomers. All I can say that, one or two points aside, anyone having this new recording need have few fears that they are missing out hugely by not having the Perahia/Lupu version. I do have a small issue with the opening, where the upward ornamented gesture each time is given what amounts to a non-dotted rhythm. Effectively, the fifth actual note of the melody, the leap of a fourth, receives less emphasis as a result, and there is a distinctive ‘rise’ through that fragment of ornamentation which flattens out the expressive power of that simple melody. With Perahia/Lupu that emphasis is much more on the point at which the melody moves, the ornament occurring more as an incidental ‘grace note’. This seems far more expressive and logical to me. I had a sneak listen to the Kissin/Levine version and they do this as well. The flow is very nice however, and the balance between the players, that melody floating above the undulating accompaniment, is hugely effective – all minor differences of interpretation soon forgotten. The development section which falls at 4:52 in the Hyperion recording gives the feeling of being taken slower by Lewis/Osborne, but is actually almost the same as Perahia/Lupu, the latter somehow being more horizontal with their accents, managing to sustain and glue the whole thing together just a little more, Lewis/Osborne gaining with a different sense of clarity and meaning. The heavenly melodic section which follows is perhaps a little more direct and a touch less magical with Lewis/Osborne, though I’m probably being picky here. The recording in general is closer with the Hyperion disc, and so the sheer life and impact of what is happening with the strings of the piano takes over more, where the Perahia/Lupu recording is helped out with a bigger halo of acoustic resonance. The dancing joy in the section from 7:46 is infectious, and certainly faster and more exciting than the alternative. Perahia/Lupu maintain their lyrical view of the work even through the quicker sections and come in a minute longer as a result. The genius moment where the opening melody returns is always special – here at 12:42, after a moment of delicious anticipation. The polyphonic section which follows builds superbly, and the climax is perfectly proportioned without any hint of bombast. The very last few bars of the piece are a monument of chilling finality.

This is a recording which, quite simply, deserves immediate ‘classic’ status, and will be high on anyone’s wanted list of Schubert piano releases for a very long time indeed. Challengers such as the DOM label’s Irena Kofman and André de Groote and the more completist bargain EMI sets with Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz have their qualities, but this Hyperion release is much more of an all-round winner. The Potton Hall acoustic is perfect for piano, while the recording is fairly close the ambience is pleasant and non-fatiguing. This is Schubert presented in all his brilliance and emotive power. Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis prove themselves a perfect partnering for this and, I hope, many more projects of the kind.

Dominy Clements

A perfect partnering: Schubert in all his brilliance and emotive power.