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Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Complete Works for Piano Four Hands
Jan Vermeulen & Veerle Peeters (fortepiano Tröndlin, Leipzig 1825-1830)
rec. 2014-19, Willebringen, Belgium
ETCETERA KTC1511 [7 CDs: 525:59]

I already had the recordings of Schubert’s complete piano music for four hands, so I might have thought that another would one more too many, but both my other versions are performed on a modern grand piano, whereas here we have a piano dating from the composer’s last few years. This recording, then, is about its real star, the Tröndlin fortepiano and how it compares with the modern instruments on my two sets, one of which, played by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow (DDA21701), I reviewed in these pages in June 2017. I remember being very impressed with Goldstone’s and Clemmow’s performance, and my admiration has not diminished since - which is not to say that this performance is not important; on the contrary, no matter how good the piano sounds, it all depends on the players.

After his much-vaunted complete cycle of the solo piano music of Schubert performed on a fortepiano, it is only to be expected that Jan Vermeulen would eventually move on to the composer’s music for piano four hands. Here, he has chosen as his partner the artistic director from his series of solo Schubert recordings, Veerle Peeters, who was also his former student and is someone with whom he has had a performing relationship for some years, a familiarity which shines through in their performance on these discs. Their performance shows great sensibility and a deep understanding of each other, leading to a wonderful partnership and recording. Each of the seven discs here has its particular highlights.

The first disc opens well with a spirited, but not too fast, performance of the Duo in A minor, an excellent, nuanced presentation which sets the tone for the whole set. This is further highlighted by the duo’s performance of the Trois Marches Militaires, its opening march leading the way with great aplomb. In these three pieces, Vermeulen and Peeters show both a great understanding of the music, leading to a most enjoyable performance. The second disc opens equally well, with a glowing performance of the mighty Divertissement I über französische Motive in E minor, which again is a very nuanced performance as the pair switch effortlessly from the very quiet passages to the loud. I especially enjoyed their brilliant performance of the third movement Rondo brilland: Allegretto; this form is carried over into the wonderful Variationen über ein Originalthema in B flat Major - they whisk through the work with all its intricacies. The disc concludes with one of the finest recordings of the Fantasie in F minor that I have heard - a real pleasure to listen to.

Disc three opens with the magnum opus of Schubert’s works for piano duo, his Grand Duo Sonata in C major, which is probably the most recorded of all the composer’s four hand pieces. Its timing averages around 45 minutes and is his largest work in the genre, even if Benjamin Britten and Richter rattle through in less than 40 minutes in their famous Decca recording (4668222), while Alfred Brendel and Evelyne Crochet manage it even more quickly, knocking a further three minutes off that in their Vox recording (CD3X3041). At a touch over 45 minutes, this recording is towards the slower end, but it doesn’t feel slow as Vermeulen and Peeters play with plenty of style and scrupulous attention to detail, leading to a very faithful, yet exciting performance. One thing: on the outer slipcase this work is assigned the correct number from the Deutsch catalogue D812, yet on the disc box itself, it is given D823. This is followed by the Sechs Polonaisen, an ideal coupling for the Grand Duo, their variety complementing it well. Again, the performance is first rate, the specific character and personality of each of these polonaises shining through.

Composed around the same time as the Grand Duo, the next disc opens with the Variations in A flat Major on an Original Theme, which Goldstone and Clemmow in the notes for their set describe as “some of his most sublime music”, the eight variations taking us through a variety of  emotions, the slower ones being especially fine. The theme itself is in march form, its slow variations being particularly tender, which has been put down to Schubert’s fondness for one of his students, the Countess Karoline. Here it is presented as a single track, whilst Goldstone and Clemmow give it three, making it easier for the listener to single out their favourite variation. This is followed by the Deux Marches caractéristiques; these again show Schubert’s liking for the march, these two pieces being fast and jolly in nature. The next pieces on the disc are his Vier Polonaises; Vermeulen describes them as “unpretentious works…once again it is the emotions expressed in the trios that catch our attention.” However, what struck me first was the Spanish nature of the opening of No. 1 in D minor, this polonaise being quite upbeat despite its minor key. The first of the Trois Marches héroïques opens with a Beethovenian flourish which soon gives way to a more lyrical section which is brought out well here by Vermeulen and Peeters, which they also do in the remaining two Marchs, as they differentiate between the dramatic and tenderer central sections.

There are just two works on disc five, first, the Six Grandes Marches et Trios, D819 of 1824, again the same year as the Grand Duo. Here Vermeulen makes the argument that although each of these six pieces have the stature to be played as individual pieces, he and Peeters feel as if Schubert intended them to be played as a cycle, whereas others, including Goldstone and Clemmow, spread them through their survey. Here, Vermeulen and Peeters point to the variety of the moods and key signatures of the six pieces as reasons why they should be performed as a whole. The penultimate March, the longest of the six, is almost a funeral march, which Liszt apparently liked so much that he orchestrated it, while the opening and final marches are quite upbeat. Both approaches have their merit, to me the idea of their being performed together does seem more plausible. The final track on the disc is the elegant, nine-minute Rondo for piano duet in D major, D608. It is in three time, and has the feel of a slow waltz and although it has the pseudonym Notre amitié est invariable, or ‘Our friendship is constant’, it is not known whether it was Schubert who applied this to the work, but it seems that it could be meant for his regular duet partner Josef von Gahy. Whatever the reason, the piece has great charm and elegance which shine through here.

Beginning with the Variations on a Theme from Hérold's "Marie", Op. 82, D. 908, the sixth disc offers yet another interesting and varied programme for the listener. A full staging of the work in Vienna in December 1826 gave Schubert the impetus to compose his variations, which he completed a few months later. The theme itself is a bit dull, but Schubert was at his most inspired and the resulting variations show both great variety and no lack of humour, interspersed with elegance and invention. Here, although not the quickest, Vermeulen and Peeters give a performance of stylish swagger and panache. What follows is the Grande Sonata in B flat Major of 1818, composed when Schubert was 21. The sonata’s opening gesture begins brightly, suggesting the form of a virtuosic overture, but this soon gives way to a more relaxed theme and the overall feeling is not one of the grandeur that the title would suggest. Another work on this disc that I like is the short E minor Fugue, a quite pleasant exercise in fugal writing. Vermeulen suggests in his notes that this piece was exactly that, a work completed after attending a class on counterpoint and fugal writing shortly before his death - although it has also been suggested that both he and Franz Lachner decided to compose a short organ piece after visiting the Heiligenkreuz monastery, this being the basis for Schubert’s piece.

The beginning of the final disc in this set is spritely enough with the first of his two overtures specifically for piano duet. It is not known whether either this, the Overture in F major D 675 of November 1819, or the G minor Overture D 668 of the previous month, which closes this disc and the set as a whole, was initially intended for a stage work or just as an exercise for piano duet; what is clear, however, is that both are engaging, dramatic works. This is followed by the Acht Variationen über franzöisches Lied based upon Le bon chevalier which is said to have been composed by Queen Hortense of Holland, the sister-in-law of Napoleon. The original theme is more attractive than the one he used from Herold's "Marie", which leads to some nice development of the ideas in the variations, even if they sound less inspired and original than the Hérold variations. Perhaps one of the most important pieces on this disc is the Fantasie in G Major D1, Schubert earliest known work, which he composed during April 1810, completing it on the 1st May, when still only thirteen. This precocious work is clearly influenced by the music of his teachers while showing some originality. The slow introduction to the piece is interrupted by some contrapuntal writing before the March, which Vermeulen describes as being full of invention, stating that “In the March and its Trio – half way through the Trio in particular – is a passage that is highly reminiscent of the Papageno-Papagena duet.” Then at about ten minutes or so there is an Andante section that calls for some advanced tonality and which further reinforces the inventiveness and originality of Schubert’s music, even at an early age.

Throughout this recording project, the playing is at least very good; Vermeulen and Peeters show that they have done more than just rehearse this set, but each has instead acquired a true understanding and a clear intuition of what the other is thinking, putting this up there with the best recordings of this wonderful music and inspiring me to search out Jan Vermeulen’s recording of Schubert’s complete solo piano music on fortepiano. The recorded sound is excellent, while the booklet notes, in four languages, are good but could be better. Sadly, there is no description of the instrument, which, when a recording employs a historic instrument, would have been very helpful.

The piano was made by Johann Nepomuk Tröndlin (1790-1862) who, after studying piano construction in southern Germany and Vienna, started to make his own instruments, initially as part of the instrument manufacturing part of Breitkopf & Härtel business in Leipzig until 1824. He then set up his own company manufacturing pianos in Leipzig, making an average of around fifty pianos per year until 1855 when he sold the company. It seems that as a piano manufacturer he was greatly influenced by, and kept up with, the innovations from the Austrian makers, incorporating them into his own instruments.  It has been said that he made Viennese instruments in Leipzig and these instruments were highly thought of. Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann held them in great regard and they were for some time their preferred pianos. The sound of the piano here is bright, yet full-bodied for such an early example. As there is no mention of this being a copy, I imagine that this is an original Tröndlin instrument, manufactured in the first five years of his company’s production. It has a wonderfully rounded sound that will please all but the most ardent haters of the fortepiano.

Stuart Sillitoe

Disc 1 [74:24]
Duo in A minor, Allegro ‘Lebensstürme', D947 [16:44]
Divertissement à la Hongroise D818 [33:39]
Trois Marches Militaires, D733 [15:49]
German Dance (with two trios and two Ländler) D618 [7:39]
Disc 2 [76:09]
Divertissement I über französische Motive in E minor D823 [33:57]
Rondo for piano duet in A major, D951 [5:06]
Variations in B flat major, D968A (D603) [11:13]
Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, D940 [18:37]
Disc 3 [77:23]
Grand Duo in C major, D812 'Grande Sonate' [45:07]
Sechs Polonaises, D824 [32:16]
Disc 4 [72:58]
Variations in A flat major on an original theme, D813 [17:35]
Deux Marches caractéristiques D886 [16:47]
Vier Polonaises, Op. 75, D. 599 [16:17]
Trois Marches héroïques D602 [21:46]
Disc 5 [72:07]
Six Grandes Marches et Trios, D819 [61:57]
Rondo for piano duet in D major, D608 [9:10]
Disc 6 [73:44]
Variations on a Theme from Hérold's "Marie", Op. 82, D. 908 [12:34]
Grande Sonata in B flat major, D617 [18:50]
Grande Marche héroïque in A minor, D885 [18:11]
Fugue in E minor D 952 [4:01]
Grande Marche Funèbre in C minor, D859 [10:30]
Allegro moderato in C major and Andante in A minor, D968 [7:28]
Disc 7 [79:14]
Overture D 675 in F major for piano duo [7:13]
Acht Variationen über franzöisches Lied, in E minor D624 [13:32]
Four Ländler D814 [3:08]
March in G major, D928 'Kindermarsch' [2:30]
Fantasie in G major for piano duet, D1 [21:16]
Fantasie in G minor for piano duet, D9 [8:38]
Fantasie in C minor for piano duet, D48 [15:07]
Overture D 668 in G minor for piano duo [9:32]

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