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 Recording of the Week  Schubert: Piano Duets

Schubert wrote almost as much music for piano duet as he did for piano solo. He wrote his first piano duet when he was thirteen and spent much of his final year (while dying of syphilis) writing a series of four-hand masterpieces. It is perhaps surprising therefore that they are not more frequently performed than they are. Earlier this year Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne did their bit to try and redress that with a series of concerts around the UK, and luckily for us they took their programme into the recording studio as well – the result of which has just been released by Hyperion.

Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis
Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis

The programme features two of his most famous duets from his final year (1828) - the Allegro in A minor (Lebensstürme), D947 and the F minor Fantasie, D940 - along with two sets of variations, a rondo and a fugue. They are brilliant works full of drama, charm and subtlety, but are in many ways much more difficult to perform than the solo works. Apart from the obvious physically awkward bits of clashing elbows and jostling fingers there are other issues when playing piano duets which are all too easy for non-pianists (like me) to forget. For example as Steven Osborne pointed out in his blog earlier this year:

”Only one person can pedal at a time, so someone has to cede control of this crucial tool to their partner who inevitably has different pedalling instincts. Even if they didn't, the instinct is initially to pedal in accordance with one's own part which can ruin the sound of the other part. On the other hand, pedalling in a way which supports a melody you're not yourself playing can be surprisingly tricky.

Then there is the problem of timing. Piano notes have a very percussive start, which means that it is exceptionally hard for two players to make chords sound together - any discrepancy of more than one or two hundredths of a second is audible. This can be a serious headache for music which needs rhythmic flexibility.”

Their achievement on this disc is really quite remarkable as, apart from successfully conquering the issues mentioned above, they do so with a degree of uniformity in approach and musicianship that makes it very hard to tell them apart. They have the complete measure of Schubert’s writing - at times dramatic, at times reflective, and at others full of real charm and allure. And in the Fantasie in particular they achieve a really special stillness which is both striking and captivating. Textures never sound cluttered and you can always hear the most important melodic line (or lines) clearly.

These are two brilliant musicians at their absolute best and is without doubt one of my favourite discs this year.

Schubert: Piano Duets

Paul Lewis (piano) & Steven Osborne (piano)

Available Format: CD