Works for Piano Four Hands – Sonata in D, Op. 6; Eight Variations on a Theme by Count von Waldstein, WoO 67; Three Marches, Op. 45; Six Variations on ‘Ich denke dein’, WoO 74; Grosse Fuge, Op. 134
Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (piano)
Delphian DCD34221 48.50 mins
In Beethoven’s anniversary year everyone is strenuously trying to find a new angle, but these pianists have effortlessly hit on one. Beethoven was only rarely persuaded to try his hand at the four-hand artform, and the results were fairly routine, apart from one remarkable work which has become all but forgotten.
Composed, probably for teaching purposes, when Beethoven was still in his teens, the Sonata in D is a short but accomplished exercise. The Waldstein variations – in this convivial and muscular performance – reflect the 21-year-old composer’s delight in turning stylistic tricks and in striking dramatic attitudes. The instrumental evocations of the Marches are nimble and high-spirited, and the Six Variations, written in the same year as the Eroica Symphony, have a tranquil grace.
But the four-hand Grosse Fuge is something else. Originally designed as the finale to the Op. 130 String Quartet, it was regarded as both rebarbative and unplayable: its publisher Matthias Artaria mendaciously persuaded Beethoven that there was public demand for a four-hand version. The pianist to whom the composer agreed to entrust this task smoothed out its seeming unplayabilities and was accordingly sacked; Beethoven took over the transcription and worked with fastidious care. It’s essentially the same work, though the savage beauty of the quartet version here becomes naked aggression: the balm-like legato of the middle section remains wonderfully comforting, but at other times the listener feels as though pelted with white-hot coals. Messrs Hill and Frith have done us a service: now let’s see what other pianists make of this fascinating work.
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