Sunday Playlist: Franz Schubert (1797-1828) — Piano Duets – Imre Rohmann & Andras Schiff

schubert captioned rondel 160x160For some strange reason it’s always been quite difficult to get your hands on recordings of Schubert’s piano works for four hands. I’ve no idea why this should be so as they’re wonderful pieces of music, I was gobsmacked back in 1977 when I first heard the Hungaroton recordings by Imre Rohmann and Andras Schiff at a friend’s house. Despite being seriously broke I made a detour on my way home to buy my own copy I tried everywhere without success until I visited the now defunct Golden Disc’s classical department in the basement of their Grafton Street shop and snaffled their last copy. I walked home triumphantly bearing my prize and feeling that the fact that I would have to walk into work for the rest of the month and walk home again afterwards was a small price to pay. So here they are for your edification and delight:

  • Fantasy in F minor, D.940
  • Lebensstürme in A minor, D.947
  • Grand Rondeau in A major, D.951
  • 2 Marches Caractéristiques in C major, D.886 – No.1
  • 2 Marches Caractéristiques in C major, D.886 – No.2

To my mind the cover notes by the renowned Austrian pianist Jürg Demus excel by far anything I could hope to write about these musical gems so I’ve shamelessly quoted them in their entirety. Enjoy :-).


How poor the piano literature for four hands would be without Schubert! This musical form is indebted to him for its most significant enrichment — ranging from the popular marches to works of virtually symphonic size. The roots of the genre sprang from different soils. Schubert’s musical invention was so prolific that often the two hands of a pianist proved to be insufficient, and thus the performance of complicated counterpoint, the countless subsidiary themes and delicate harmonic details demanded two pianists and four hands, resembling the four parts of a string quartet.

In this sense the Rondo in A major resembles a real string quartet. The four hands are "performers" in an extremely rich musical event, the intensity of the music, the beauty of its sound, transcending the possibilities of piano music written for two hands.

With his marches Schubert renders tribute to a war-like age. It makes one reflect that Schubert, with his lyrical disposition, averse to every form of militarism, wrote so much lovely music for the purpose of military ceremonies. Of these the March in D major has become world famous; musically, however, the two "Marches caractéristiques" are richer by far. Both works may actually be regarded as great symphonic scherzos, and it is almost incomprehensible why some later great composers did not orchestrate these pieces, which are really so orchestral in character.

"Lebensstürme" dates from 1828, the last year of Schubert’s life. It is part of his last creative period of almost inconceivable richness, and it is quite possible that — like the Grand Duo — it was intended as the first movement of a monumental sonata. Or should we say instead, a symphony? At that time Schubert’s symphonies lay in the archives of different Societies, and the composer never heard a performance of any of his symphonies. It may be presumed that he clad his ideas intended for orchestral use in the garb of less demanding four-handed piano music, because in this way the pieces were at least played by a wide circle of music lovers.
The Fantasy in F minor, dedicated to Countess Caroline Esterhazy, is undoubtedly one of the most important of all piano duet works. The extraordinarily expressive and noble melody in F minor — to a certain extent reminiscent of Barbarina’s Cavatina from "The Marriage of Figaro" — is interworked throughout the piece as a leitmotif, and it is clearly perceptible that in a symphony sense the melody falls into four sections. The pathetic Allegro theme appearing mainly in canon also constitutes the core of the closing fugue, where it soars with an intensification that storms the heavens. Between these two F minor blocks appears the grandiose "Handelian" Largo in F sharp minor, with a dreamy F sharp major middle section, and a lengthy Scherzo also in F sharp minor, with its tender and delicate Trio ("con delicatezza" — Schubert indicates). The last word, however, is given to the plaintive opening theme. After a sudden interruption of the fugue, it is heard, now for the last time, with a resigned gesture, and is only followed by a plagal cadence of a beauty and depth unusual even in Schubert.

Jürg Demus

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) — Piano Duets – Imre Rohmann & Andras Schiff

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