Issue 44:6 July-Aug 2021
SCHUBERT Auf den Wasser zu singen, D 774 (transcr. Ulrich). String Quartet No. 14 in d, D 810, “Death and the Maiden”: Andante con moto (transcr. Ulrich). Schwanengesang, D 957: No. 7, Abschied (transcr. Ulrich). Du bist die Ruh, D 776 (transcr. Ulrich). An der Mond, D 193 (transcr. Palmas Duo). Erlkönig, D 328 (transcr. Reinhardt). Sonatina, D 968. Variations on an Original Theme, D 813. Fantasie in f, D 94 • Palmas Duo • LA BOTTEGA DISCANTICA 317 (74:00)
Schubert reframed will always reveal core truths of this composer. We hear Auf dem Wasser zu singen in a transcription for piano duo by Hugo Ulrich (1827–1872), and wonder anew at the melodic invention, and how a modern piano can be made to “sing” by the brother-and-sister Palmas Duo, a partnership that is no novice to the scene: Clara Schuman’s transcription of her husband’s Piano Quintet, op. 44, appeared shoulder-to-shoulder with Brahms’s transcription of Schumann’s Piano Quartet, op. 47, on the same label, reviewed in Fanfare 34:5.
The Lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen” forms the basis of the slow movement of Schubert’s D-Minor Quartet, D 810. This is Schubert taking the song for a walk; it takes a piano duo of great maturity to do honor the original, and yet that is what the Palmas Duo achieve through their compelling understanding of the score’s waft and weave. Each detail is beautifully considered, from the tightest of ornaments to every legato cantabile; more, Palmas has considered the harmonic ramifications of Schubert’s structures in depth both on an individual level and globally. Finally for our consideration of this transcription, perhaps let us nod appreciatively to Ulrich’s writing for the rich lower part of the keyboard which shows clear links to Schubert’s writing in his own piano sonatas.
Born in Silesia, Ulrich was a noted composer who apparently taught Hermann Goetz and Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. There is a healthy catalog of works that includes several symphonies and a Symphonie triomphale composed for the wedding of the Duke of Brabant. I mention this only as there currently appears to be a dearth of recordings, making him prime fodder for the likes of Naxos and, given his geographical location, surely the Osnabrück-based CPO label.
It’s interesting to hear the Palmas Duo have a crack of the whip in their transcription of “An der Mond,” and beautifully realized it is too, with a lovely light touch for the faster section; it’s also good to hear how daring they can be with the pauses, highlighting the progressive nature of Schubert’s setting. The first “true” Schubert, the delicious Sonatina in A-Minor, D 968, is performed with true unanimity; the Palmas’ rapport reminds me of the playing of the Justus Franz/Christoph Eschenbach duo (whose superb Schubert was at one point collated into a Brilliant Classics box, and whose Mozart is peerless). Despite its title of Sonatina (and no key given as the first movement Allegro Moderato is in C Major, the second Andante in A Minor), the Palmas Duo manages to project that sense of timelessness that Schubert was so masterful at creating.
Returning to Ulrich, Schubert’s famous Rellstab setting, “Abschied,” speaks every inch of the happy gait that opens the Master’s Die schöne Müllerin; and how keenly alive is the middle part that generates that sense in tandem with a feeling of movement.
It is August Reinhard (1831–1912) who transcribed the über-famous “Erlkönig” so beautifully here (among his other words appears to be a transcription of the first movement of Schubert’s op. 100/D 929 Piano Trio for harmonium and piano). It is a fine transcription; perhaps just a touch more of a sense of urgency to the performance would have sealed the deal.
The second piece of unadulterated Schubert is the Variations in A♭ Major, D 813 (published as his op. 35), in a magnificent performance that is positively aglow with serene A♭ radiance. This is an expansive work, equal in duration here to the more famous, late F-Minor Fantasie, full of passages that glisten like sun off water from the Primo or deep rumblings that take us to places of Winterreise-like profundity. It all bodes well for the F-Minor Fantasie, and there Palmas does not disappoint, finding huge heft and gravitas for the Largo. And when we hear a sweet treble line in the context of the music on this disc, it is impossible not to experience it as the melody of a Lied. The Scherzo is positively a fiesta; the finale is almost orchestral in scope, with an expansion of sound that retains the tone completely. The closing return of the work’s opening makes full effect; one feels really quite exhausted by the close. And so to a farewell: “Du bist die Ruh’” in Ulrich’s porcelain-like transcription.
The disc takes as its starting point a 1967 text, Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?) by Pier Paolo Pasolini that even begins with the words “Once upon a time….” A Märchenbild (fairy tale picture), the disc puts the piano duo as the Romantic protagonist, “journeying” through works both original and transcribed. The recording is splendid, fully revealing the depth the piano used is capable of, while also revealing the sparkling treble. That piano is actually a Borgato Grand Prix 333, which, when it was unveiled in Padova in Italy in September 2017, claimed to be the longest designated concert grand piano in the world (the “333” refers to its length, three meters 33 centimeters). Special spruce from Passau in Germany is used for the soundboard (apparently at a cost of 28,000 Euros per cubic meter). The piano technician for this recording was Luigi Borgato himself; small wonder it sounds in perfect shape.
As a concept, this is superb; it is also an education, and an example of the very best piano sound. It also beings deep joy and, at times, solace. This is Want List material. Colin Clarke