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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Works For Piano Four Hands
Sonata for piano four hands in D major, Op. 6 (publ. 1797) [5:56]
Eight Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67 (1792) [8:49]
Three Marches for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 45 (1803) [14:34]
Six Variations on 'Ich denke Dein' WoO 74 (1799) [4:45]
Grosse Fuge, Op. 134 (1827) [14:44]
Peter Hill, Benjamin Frith (piano)
rec. 2019, School of Music Concert Hall, Cardiff University, UK.

Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith have worked together as pianists since 1986, and their recent recordings include Russian Works, also for the Delphian label (review). This was also recorded in the pleasantly lively acoustic of the Cardiff University concert hall, and while this repertoire is perhaps not the most essential Beethoven it is certainly of interest and becomes hugely entertaining through these skilled hands.

The Sonata Op. 6 makes for an animated opening, with even the Moderato second of its two movements taken at a reasonably brisk pace. Each of the variations is given its own track number on this CD which is useful for study. The Eight Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, the same Waldstein of Beethoven’s later Op. 53 piano sonata with this title, is a light and amusing affair but with the composer teasing out the interest in the theme, which has a built-in frisson of major against minor. The Three Marches arose as the result of a joke by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, re-told in Benjamin Hill’s informative and substantial booklet notes. These marches are grander in scale than you might expect, with contrasting Trio sections and inventive effects such as drums in the second, and a brassy fanfare in the third emphasising the outdoor feel of these pieces, all played with stylish verve on this recording. The Six Variations on 'Ich denke Dein' were written for two sisters who were Beethoven’s piano pupils. His amorous feelings for one of the sisters comes through in the songlike theme with its associations with Goethe. The booklet notes remind us of the lack of popularity experienced by the Grosse Fuge as the original finale to Beethoven’s Op. 130 string quartet. This remains a gnarly work, but hearing it on piano through Beethoven’s arrangement can throw some new light on it.

This recording can be compared with one on the Grand Piano label with Amy and Sara Hamann (review). This repeats the repertoire recorded on fortepiano as well as on a modern grand piano and is very well played indeed. Despite one out-of-tune string in some of the pieces this in many aspects turns out to be preferable to Hill and Frith, with the Hamann sisters warmer in their expression where the present recording can tend towards brittleness along with its qualities of extrovert theatricality. There is something in this from the recording quality here too, with the Hamann sisters placed a little closer to the microphones and able to create a more confiding and intimate quality where the music asks for it. It is in parts of the Grosse Fuge where I also find Hill and Frith lacking a little of the expected 100% quality, hacking through and giving even more of a feel of unplayability in the densest sections than the Hamann sisters, who manage to get more musicality out the thing in general.

Short playing time might be a problem for some with this release, though this is all of Beethoven’s four-handed piano music. Given the choice I would go for Amy and Sara Hamann’s Grand Piano recording. Their fortepiano disc is more than an intriguing bonus, providing the atmosphere of an 18th century salon concert, and even though the idea of having that wretched Grosse Fuge twice might not be very appealing their attention to detail and musicality makes for a more preferable package.

Dominy Clements

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