Beethoven’s Symphonies, Vol. 2 – Instrumental – Reviews

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Beethoven’s Symphonies, Vol. 2
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (arr. Scharwenka); Andante and variations, op. 46; Saint-Saëns: Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, Op. 35; Schumann: Andante and Variation for two pianos, Op. 46
Tessa Uys, Ben Schoeman (piano)
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0650 65:02 min

Before modern recordings made the sound of an orchestra a common part of home listening, there was a huge appetite for piano arrangements of the symphonies of Beethoven and others. Franz-Xaver Scharwenka’s beautiful transcription of the Fifth Symphony dates from the turn of the 20th century and was therefore designed for the genre of modern concert grand piano or domestic upright piano that is familiar today.

The challenge for pianists playing an arrangement like this is to convey the sonic and rhythmic firepower that must have so astonished music’s early audiences two centuries ago, while avoiding an overpowering of the eardrums. Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman square this circle perfectly, finding particularly seductive sounds in the Andante con moto slow movement. Even in such skilled hands, however, the hushed tension of the Scherzo the main sections of the movement cannot really be evoked in the sound of a piano duet.

The musicians then switch to two pianos in the other two works. Saint-Saens Variations on a Theme by Beethoven (the theme being from the Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 3) is in places almost ridiculously crushed, but a scintillating listening experience nonetheless. And that of Schumann Andante and Variations in Bb, while offering no obvious connection to Beethoven, is a warmly imaginative creation that amply deserves its unlikely place here. In terms of precise coordination and engaging interaction, the performance is state-of-the-art.

Malcolm Hayes

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