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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Lebensstürme, D947 (1828) [12:54]
Fantasie in F minor, D940 (1828) [18:56]
Variation movement from “Death and the Maiden” quartet (arr. Menuhin, 2014) [14:02]
8 Variations on an Original Theme in A-flat major, Op. 35, D813 (1824) [19:41]
Mookie Lee-Menuhin (piano)
Jeremy Menuhin (piano)
rec. 26-29 January 2015, Mendelssohn-Saal, Gewandhuis Leipzig, Germany.

This is a strangely troubling recording. I know we’re supposed to be open to lots of new things and be able to embrace alternative views of familiar music, but this is a Lebensstürme to which I find it hard to warm. The tempo is rather on the pedestrian side, though not much slower than Justus Franz and Christoph Eschenbach on EMI/Warner (see review). This latter duo shows just how much more drama can be brought out of this remarkable score, even when exploring detail over helter-skelter virtuosity. The Menuhin duo a-r-t-i-c-u-l-a-t-e-s everything to the point of it sounding like a warm-up practise run-through rather than a real performance, and there is no sense of flight. It’s as if they’ve taken the speed at which they could effectively repeat the first two notes and used that as a basis for deciding the pace of the whole. The players speed up a little when the music hots up with those downward scales – in the recapitulation that is; not earlier on, but in general I can’t find much to appreciate in something so leaden.

This doesn’t bode well for another favourite, the Fantasie D 940, which has to go up against the likes of Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu who recorded it for CBS in 1985 in a classic version now available from Sony. The Menuhin duo brings some mighty dynamic contrasts to this piece, but to my ears there isn’t much poetry or lyricism going on. Even the most magical passages exist in a kind of stodge from which there is no escape, and while the brisker second section moves along a bit more there is still a feeling of wooden boxes being piled on top of each other rather than the building of sublime musical architecture.

The USP for this release is in the arrangement of the slow movement from Schubert’s String Quartet D 810 famously known as Death and the Maiden. The opening bars of this movement come from a song bearing this name, from which Schubert goes on to create numerous variations. This is a very effective transcription, not over-egging the potential of the piano over the original quartet, but by no means avoiding effects which make it into something convincing for pianos. Without a comparison it’s easier to relax into this performance on its own terms, but there is still something earthbound about the whole thing. Stretching my brain to try and work out what it going on and I can only conclude that it has to do with phrasing, both of inner voices and leading melodic lines. This is the kind of piece around which each expressive arc leads us out and back, each time in different ways both subtle and widely contrasting. Here the shapes are rather blandly placed, and while there are plenty of nice moments we’re not held in much of a spell. In the end, it’s more like being held in an endless telephone queue.

This alas is almost also true of the Variations on an Original Theme D 813, though there are more redeeming features in this performance. The Menuhin duo seems more at home in this work, though the opening comes across rather as a dirge when compared to the more lively Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne on Hyperion (see review). With the slower tempo here and in Lebensstürme – also much, much better from Lewis and Osborne – our attention is sometimes unfortunately brought to the ends of phrases, which can end up sounding a little clunky. This duo has plenty of technique and the piano sound is admirable, but even with the première recording of the quartet transcription and a programme that promises much, there is nothing here that sets my heart racing. This is a Schubert programme that has the potential to make you feel you’ve fallen in love all over again. I’m left feeling more like the one whose heart was given away the very next day, so I would tactfully suggest you also save yours for something more special.

Dominy Clements



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