Duo Stephanie and Saar: Cavatina


New Focus FCR274

It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.

The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.

This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.

The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.

The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.

The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.

The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.

The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.

This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.

This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting