Prague Piano Duo

Beethoven: Works for Piano Duet; Symphony No. 7

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Beethoven's multi-hand piano music is one of the least investigated and most infrequently revived aspects of his output. The discovery in 2005 of the manuscript of the four-hand version of the Grosse Fuge may help raise the profile of this genre as it relates to Beethoven, but that which militates against it is pretty ominous. So many of these pieces are early, and not fully representative of his mature style, and the remainder consists mostly of arrangements of works better known in other forms. On Praga's Ludwig van Beethoven: Works for Piano Duet -- Symphony No. 7, the estimable Prague Piano Duo sets these considerations aside in order to explore this seldom-visited corner of Beethoven's vast worklist.

The performances, all of them, are stellar, and Praga's recording is amazingly lifelike and direct. The Sonata, Op. 6, and the two sets of Variations all date from the 1790s and belong stylistically to that decade; on the surface, at least, these pieces resemble Mozart's music so strongly that one might be forgiven for mistaking them as belonging to the older master. More discerning ears, well experienced in music of the Classical era, will note that Beethoven's variation sets are a tad coarser and a bit more gemütlich than those of Mozart. Where Mozart's music of this kind can sound like the musical equivalent of a fluffy, puff pastry, comparatively Beethoven's is more like a grainy, Black Forest Rye.

However, the main event here is the never before recorded four-hand transcription of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 by obscure German composer Hugo Ulrich, born the year Beethoven died. In his arrangement, Ulrich decided the sidestep the incessant tremolandi and monstrously huge chords typical of the nineteenth century piano transcribers in favor of transferring the basic thematic and harmonic material from the symphony onto two pianos. Curiously, this approach seems more "pianistic" than even Franz Liszt's famous transcription of this symphony, and retains the gloriously large shape of the original work without overburdening it with pianistic gymnastics. But Ulrich is not wholly responsible for the tremendous success of this recording; the Prague Piano Duo's playing of it is dedicated and exciting. Classical radio programmers should take notice of this recording of the Seventh; its first movement in particular really pricks up one's ears.

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