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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Four-Hand Piano Works
Deux marches caractéristiques, D886 Op.121 (968B) (1826) [15:57]
Eight Variations on a French Song in E minor, D624 Op.10 (1818) [14:01]
Fantasie in F minor, D940 Op.103 (1828) [19:56]
Allegro in A minor, D947 Op.144 Lebensstürme (1828) [16:56]
Soave-Baccolo Piano Duo: Chiara Soave, Cecilia Baccolo (piano 4 hands)
rec. 18/19 May 2012, Liceo Musicale Varese, Italy. DDD
DYNAMIC CDS 734 [66:54]

Franz Schubert has left us a large library of 4-hands piano works, but only one of them, the incomparable Fantasie in F minor, became a “hit”. Out of the rest, each recording duo usually selects a few that are closer to their taste. The Italian duo of Chiara Soave and Cecilia Baccolo completed the “main course” with three other works of relatively equal length and different character. In this they have created a balanced and stimulating program.
Oddly, the Two Characteristic Marches are not characteristically march-like, but are closer to happy, energetic gallops. The second is more dancing and less straight-lined than the first; it has a few episodes of different character and resembles Schubert’s middle-period sonata movements. Both pieces are quite repetitive, but the performers apparently know how to play Schubert’s “heavenly lengths” to advantage. In their hands, the music sprints forward. The dynamics are varied, which adds another degree of liveliness. The rubato is switched off - there is not a single slightly uneven note in a thousand; each stitch has the same length and slant.
The Eight Variations on a French Song are actually more march-like than the Marches. The minor-key theme is somber and concentrated. The first few variations are not especially Schubertian, and sometimes sound like academic exercises – not boring but not exciting either, with echoes of Beethoven’s German Dances. The variations are not very adventurous, yet one should not forget that this is exactly the composition that Schubert decided to show to Beethoven at their unsuccessful meeting. All goes quite march-like until Variation V, where we finally hear Schubert’s magic silver bells. Variation VI is dramatic. Variation VII is High Schubert, Impromptu-like; it goes from subdued to very expressive. The closing variation marches again in a free, vigorous pace, and resembles the finales of some of Schubert’s sonatas. The performers really do the music full justice. They imbue the first variations with enough expressivity to make them enjoyable listening. They bring out the magic of Variation VII, and their finale is bright and gentle like the morning.
Fantasie in F minor is for me the greatest 4-hands piano work ever written. In a free four-part structure, episodes flow one into another connected by the main melody of the refrain. We hear a poignant and dramatic journey through the storms of life. This music deserves to be stunning, and this is what it receives in this performance. Though Soave-Baccolo do not fully match my personal favorite, Perahia-Lupu (Sony) in suppleness of touch and wistful tenderness, they also leave a profound musical impression, though in a different way. In their version, this music comes from Earth, not from Heaven. It does not sing of the Romantic blows of fate; rather it speaks of our life with its toils and troubles. The pianists bring martial qualities to the music; this version has more staccato and hits without soft gloves. The piano sound is often hard and at times attains organ-like grandeur. This is especially to ne heard in the last fugal section - dark and colossal. Their quiet places are not too hushed, so the contrasts of this music are reduced. Yet the tension is right, the energy is there, the structure never “hangs”, and all inner voices are clearly heard. The result is haunting.
The title “Lebensstürme” was coined by Schubert’s editor Diabelli, who had occasional problems with good taste. The work is as long as Fantasie, but less eventful, and so it seems to be overlong. Also, following immediately after Fantasie on the disc, it sounds shallow by comparison. Still, it is Schubert, and it does include a lot of beautiful music. The first subject is highly dramatic, Beethoven-style music. The soothing second subject has a hushed cathedral air, with little bells ringing above. The duo does not bang the loud parts, while the quiet parts possess gentle restraint. The music has grace and beauty; yet I feel that the performance is too staccato: it’s like suddenly getting an energetic beating instead of that relaxing massage you had expected.
Overall, the disc leaves a coherent impression. The recording is clear but a little remote, which reduces the directness of impact in Lebensstürme. The piano sound is typical Steinway, a little unyielding at times. Together with the staccato-rich manner of playing this creates a singular sound-space, which is not the most apt for the two big works. The performances are energetic and vigorous. Lebensstürme would benefit from more persuasive advocacy … and this work really does need advocacy. As for the Fantasie, it would benefit from a softer touch in places. All that said the enduring impression left by this disc is of something big and beautiful – the right thing to feel after listening to a Schubert album.
Oleg Ledeniov