Beethoven/Scharwenka: Complete Symphonies, Vol. 2

The second album in a series of six of piano duo Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman was released by SOMM Recordings in April 2022. This was accompanied with a launch concert at the beautiful South Africa House on Trafalgar Square, London. Beethoven Symphonies Vol. 2 – Beethoven Symphony no. 5 transcribed for piano duet by Xaver Scharwenka, and Variations on a theme of Beethoven for 2 pianos, Op. 35 by C Saint-Saëns, and Andante und Variationen for 2 pianos, Op. 46 by R Schumann. SOMM Recordings 0650.

To purchase it from the SOMM Recordings website, please click here.


Malcolm Hayes in BBC Music Magazine:

Before modern recordings made the sound of an orchestra a routine part of home listening, there was a huge appetite for piano arrangements of the symphonies of Beethoven and others. Franz-Xaver Scharwenka’s fine transcription of the Fifth Symphony dates from early in the 20th century, and was therefore devised for the kind of modern concert grand or home upright piano that’s familiar today.

The challenge for those pianists playing an arrangement of this kind is to convey the sonic and rhythmic firepower that must have so astonished the music’s first audiences two centuries ago, while avoiding eardrum-bruising overkill in the process. Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman excellently square this circle, finding some specially beguiling sounds in the Andante con moto slow movement.

The players then switch to two pianos in the other two works. Saint-Saëns’s Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (the theme being from the Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 3) … a scintillating listening experience. And Schumann’s Andante and Variations in B flat, while offering no evident connection with Beethoven, is a warmly imaginative creation that more than deserves its unlikely place here. In terms both of precise co-ordination and engaging interplay, the performances are state-of-the-art. 

Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone Magazine:

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony arranged for piano duet by Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) is a premiere recording. When I welcomed Vol 1 (with the Beethoven-Scharwenka Eroica, A/21), I described it as ‘no workaday in-house arrangement’ but ‘ingeniously and handsomely voiced … the skilled work of a master’. The same pertains here. And, as with Symphony No 3, one wonders if the mighty Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van can really come off in this reduced, domestic medium. Once more, one’s initial resistance quickly evaporates. What the listener is presented with is a thoroughly rewarding, often revelatory view of this over-played and over-recorded masterpiece, one that might well send you back to a recording of the original remarking ‘well, I’ve never noticed that before’. Uys and Schoeman use a Fazioli F278 in the Menuhin Hall at Stoke d’Abernon with a big, sonorous tone providing added heft to Scharwenka’s richly voiced score.

After the fire and thunderbolts comes the intimacy of Schumann’s Andante and Variations in B flat, Op 46, originally scored for two pianos, two cellos and horn. Robert Matthew-Walker’s excellent booklet tells us that it was Mendelssohn who persuaded Schumann to produce a version for two pianos. The two in question are a couple of Steinway Model Ds heard in a perfectly voiced match: it’s impossible to tell when Piano 1 takes over from Piano 2 when the music is in question-and-answer mode or simply repeating a phrase. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the second variation played more beautifully – one of those pages of quintessential Schumann that, like the Intermezzo from Faschingsschwank aus Wien, tears at your heart-strings and won’t leave your head for days.

Saint-Saëns’s Op 35 (a homage to Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue, Op 35) is based on the Trio of the Minuet from Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat, Op 31 No 3, a glittering entertainment of mischievous co-ordination challenges for the two pianists, with lively, humorous interplay and topped by a clever fugue. Uys, who has been primo for the Beethoven and Schumann, swaps to secondo for another performance with Schoeman that ranks among the best I’ve heard of the piece, the kind that can only be achieved by long association. All this is enhanced by the notably cushioned warmth of the sound engineering. Vol 3, please!

Jonathan Welsh on MusicWeb-International:

Hot on the heels of the first volume of this enterprising series comes volume 2, this time including what is perhaps the most famous symphony of all time, Beethoven’s 5th, here given its world premiere recording in the transcription for piano duet by Franz Xaver Scharwenka.

As with the previous volume and the “Eroica”, the 5th needs no introduction or apologies, and Scharwenka expects both pianists to be virtuosi. The opening chords are surprisingly not written for double octaves as might have been expected; Scharwenka saves those for later on when even more firepower is required. Again, throughout this transcription, multiple solutions are offered to deal with the problem of arranging a work for full orchestra for piano and all is superbly realised by the duo. The opening tempo for the first movement is perhaps a little slower than expected at the start but that is more than made up for later as both pianists flamboyantly navigate the complex writing. Also, as before, the notation is subtly arranged to make it playable on two pianos and this has the added bonus of making some detail clearer than in the orchestral version.

The second movement comes across very well too – all the details are present and presented via the medium of twenty fingers. The contrasts are beautifully pointed out: a sense of calm serenity pervades this music, and the pianists respond excellently to the challenge. The rippling accompaniment starting at 2:39 – but also occurring elsewhere – is cleverly written and perfectly judged. There are some surprises here too; harmonies are clarified and details that perhaps would normally be lost are brought to the fore. Both pianists make a superb job of this movement, and it contains just as much drama as a performance for full orchestra. The fortissimo sections make an excellent contrast to the nervier and quieter moments and the ending of the movement, with its defiant chords, is splendid.

The Scherzo follows with its weird march like chords and repeated loud interruptions, all of which are again played with aplomb. The crazy scrambling section from about two minutes onwards sounds just perfect and the cunning interjections by the second pianist (I presume) that ultimately derail this trail of music are wittily done. The build up to the cheerful, blazing finale is excellently judged and that final ‘Allegro’ part starts with a bang, with bagfuls of virtuosity from both participants and continues in the same vein. There are lots of powerful tremolandos here, judiciously used and all of which add to the drama. The build up to the quieter section at about five minutes is excellently controlled and sounds absolutely right. The ending where Beethoven applies the brakes to the music before restarting again with renewed vigour is miraculously realised – listen out for the notes originally on the flutes in the last two minutes sounding almost woodwind-like but on a piano. The ending with sustained loud and powerful virtuosity from both performers is just brilliant. This is an awesome performance of a magnificent transcription…

In a well-thought-through contrast to the blazing conclusion of the Beethoven transcription, Schumann’s rarely heard variations published as Op. 46b follows next on this disc. This work exists in two versions – it was originally written for two pianos, two cellos and a horn but following a suggestion from Mendelssohn, Schumann later revised for just two pianos as heard here. These open quietly with a rather lovely slightly melancholy tune that receives a whole gamut of variation from beautifully quiet and reflective ones (heard at the outset of the piece) to bouncy march like ones (as at 4’50’’) and all points in between. As with the preceding Beethoven, the playing throughout is very intelligent and the two pianists react well to each other’s playing, producing a result full of musicality. The slower variations are deeply affecting and the quasi-funeral march one at about six minutes is especially good; the way it segues into the following faintly sad variation is perfectly handled. Schumann was, as usual, channelling his inner Florestan and Eusebius in the composition of this work but there is perhaps a slight preference for the latter, as overall the work has a dreamy and melancholy mood. Surprisingly, towards the end of the piece, Schumann brings back the opening theme completely unadorned, and uses it to generate a suitably fitting conclusion to this wonderful piece. I have to say that prior to hearing this recording I was only dimly aware of this work but on repeated listening, I have really grown to appreciate its many wonderful turns of phrase and clever writing.

The disc concludes with Saint-Saëns’ epic variations on a theme by Beethoven. As I have said before, this is a work that I have previously had issues with; I have no idea why, but it just doesn’t strike me as the composers’ best work, and it has always seemed a little laboured. However, I should say that a previous recording that I reviewed (here) changed my view and I am now much fonder of the piece. The opening is mysterious and only hints at the theme which he uses (from the Trio of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s E flat Op.31 no. 3 Sonata – sometimes nicknamed “The Hunt”) but once the theme emerges, it is subjected to ten contrasted variations including a complex, virtuosic fugue. The opening variation is a scurrying, “catch me if you can” treatment of the theme in scales and is here played very fast, with plenty of wit and character. The following variation is a complete contrast: a rather lovely lyrical treatment of the theme with some clever darker episodes and throughout some nice examples of the pianists bouncing off one another to create a spontaneous atmosphere. Thirdly, a strange inverted version of the theme; again, the Scherzo like character here is abundantly obvious and the playing is excellent. Variation 4 is extremely entertaining: bouncy repeated chords and much interaction between the pianists who again spark well off each other. Variation 5 is again a change of pace and the difference from the previous one is very marked. Here, trills and some very pretty playing join to make a splendid little creation with plenty of harmonic invention and humour. We return to scales for the following variation, with some added arpeggios for good measure. I particularly like the way the ends of phrases are rounded off here – this is a most astute and intelligent performance. I especially enjoyed the mock funeral march that is variation 7; this is just weird in comparison to the other, more conventional variations here – the playing is almost hysterical with grief and matches the mood of this variation perfectly. As the work progresses into variation 8, it becomes more and more difficult to follow the progress of the variations, but we have a restatement of the spectral opening that gradually evolves to the complex fugue that is variation 9. This is the core of the work and is perhaps the composer’s reaction to Beethoven’s Eroica variations (Op. 35). Here, there are plenty of notes for both performers to negotiate and they do so with the same high level of virtuosity and commitment that they display throughout this disc. This is such a witty take on the theme and to my ears the way that the textures are handled hints at the Scharwenka transcription from earlier in the disc and thus fits in very well here. This variation leads directly into variation 10, the conclusion of the work and featuring the tune neatly divided between the two performers who give a sparkling performance. Right at the very end, the theme emerges almost unadorned as if to remind us how far the music has travelled during the progress of this marvellous work.

As I said for Volume 1, this is a magnificent recording; the sound quality is superb, the cover notes are excellent, and the playing is exemplary throughout. Full marks to all concerned; I am once again waiting impatiently for the next volume.