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Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Arrangements for Piano Duet – Volume 4
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 (version for piano 4 hands, Robert & Clara Schumann) [38:03]
Overture: Genoveva, Op. 81 (arr. R. Pfretzschner for piano 4 hands) [8:30]
Overture: Julius Caesar, Op. 128 (arr. W. Bargiel for piano 4 hands) [9:51]
Koncertstück in F Major, Op. 86 (arr. for piano 4 hands by anonymous) [19:34]
Eckerle Piano Duo
rec. 2015, Stadthalle Ettlingen, Baden-Württemburg, Germany.
NAXOS 8.572880 [75:58]

I have to say that I am generally a fan of arrangements of works for piano duet or 2 pianos and also of Schumann, so I’ve been collecting this series since it began. I am glad to say that the performers have now reached volume 4 in the series with the second symphony and some of the overtures, plus the wonderfully over-the-top Konzertstuck originally for 4 horns and orchestra; more about those later on. Not all the works here are arranged by Robert and / or Clara Schumann but it is interesting to have arrangements by unknown composers such as Robert Pfretzschner included along with slightly better known people such as Woldemar Bargiel.

The main work on this disc is Robert and Clara’s own arrangement of Robert’s Second Symphony, Op.61. I’ve liked this symphony for years and feel that the second, third and fourth movements are the most coherent. The whole work works extremely well in this arrangement; it is also interesting to compare the details which are brought out by the arrangement – Clara and Robert clearly knew exactly what they were doing. The first movement tempo is spot on, from the mysterious beginning to the joyful main theme at about 2 minutes in; all of the changes in mood and atmosphere are well caught here. This arrangement is so skilfully done that you forget the work was originally for other forces. The second movement sounds even better, the crazy beginning sounds perfectly suited to this medium and both pianists play with considerable fire. I hesitate to say this, but I think this is better than the orchestral version in this form. The third movement is a respite from the generally boisterous nature of this work, a sad minor key Langsam which reminds me of a sad autumn scene. I really like the interplay here between the two pianos, the tune passes seamlessly between them, creating a complex web of sound. The insistent theme which seems to hold the movement together is, if anything, more apparent here than in the original orchestral textures. I like the fugal passage which begins around 4 minutes, it sounds perfect here and the different lines are easy to follow. The trills which crop up regularly here are excellently controlled and lead elegantly into the following thematic material. The movement ends peacefully as it winds down to a gentle conclusion. The finale is a joyous affair, initially sounding march-like before developing in other ways. I like the way the scale passages pass from one to the other and join effortlessly one to one another. There is no shortage of virtuosity here for either pianist and both deal with the difficulties with aplomb. This is great stuff! The questing theme around 5 minutes in leads to some interesting scales for both pianists and seems to fit this medium well. Both pianists obviously enjoy themselves very much here in the finale and react well to one another. The tension builds up nicely throughout the piece with a large outburst about half a minute from the end. The ending actually comes as rather a surprise but is very effectively done here. I shall certainly be listening to this transcription again as I have grown rather fond of it.

The overture to Genoveva (Op.81) is often cited as Schumann’s best overture and I tend to agree. Here, all the details, as cleverly arranged by Robert Pfretzschner for 4 hands, are present and correct and the whole piece works very well. I knew almost nothing about him until I read the cover notes – it turns out he was an organist and friend of the Schumanns. Anyway, the introduction is suitably sinister and dark before the work starts in earnest about 2 and a half minutes in with an insistent theme in the base. This little theme acts as a good bridge between the main parts of the work and the whole thing holds together very well. Again here, both pianists make a super job and everything sounds just right.

Schumann’s Julius Caesar, Op.128 is a late work. This transcription, which dates from 1851, is by the composer Woldmar Bargiel and it was revised by Robert 3 years later – the same year as his voluntary incarceration following his failed suicide attempt. I admit I am not terribly familiar with the original version of this piece, so this is a good excuse to get to know it better. This is a very interesting work, full of contrast and, despite its potentially rather serious source material, is actually quite cheerful and bouncy. Of special note is the rather energetic middle section around 4 minutes in, which contains some nice transitions from minor to major before leading to a happy sounding last half of the work which again requires some considerable expertise from the performers. This work shows that Bargiel was adept at transcriptions for this medium and also that both pianists work splendidly well together. This is a work I feel that I need to get to know better in its original version.

I’ve always liked the rambunctious Koncertstück for 4 horns, here arranged by an anonymous individual for 4 hands. Incidentally, there is also a version for piano and orchestra which makes it into a sort of ‘mini’ piano concerto, recorded with Lev Vinocour as soloist on RCA Red Seal 88697 65877 2 which I also like. However, I personally feel that in this present arrangement, the work loses vitality despite the best efforts of the performers. It’s true that some works just don’t work when arranged for different forces and sadly, I feel this is one such. I think maybe this is due to a lack of edge-of-the-seat virtuosity which is apparent when the 4 horns are playing. Although I do not like this arrangement particularly, I feel that the finale is the section which works best in this transcription. Here, the arranger does their best to produce something approaching the effect of the horns puffing away and manages to pull it off.

Overall, this is a very good recording of well-known pieces in different guises – however, some work better than others. This is not the fault of the performers who clearly enjoy themselves immensely, and are in perfect accord throughout. I would say the Symphony and the two overtures are the best works on the disc and it’s just a shame that the Koncertstück doesn’t appeal to me in this version. The booklet notes are quite extensive and contain interesting information about all concerned and the playing time is very generous at almost 76 minutes. I am very much looking forward to the next volume which will hopefully include a transcription of my favourite symphony by Robert, the “Spring” symphony.

Jonathan Welsh



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