Beethoven's "Eroica": arranged Scharwenka!

Beethoven's "Eroica": arranged Scharwenka!

Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," is embedded in any musician's consciousness. It has been played regularly since the date of its composition and in the recorded era has unsurprisingly generated a cornucopia of recordings.

Small surprise the market is flooded. And yet here is an arrangement of the mighty "Eroica" for piano duo by Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) - a pupil of Franz Kullak (1818-82), a pupil of Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who was himself a pupil of Beethoven.

There are surprises galore: the first movement seems to be able to dance at a moment's notice in this performance - it is as if there is an undercurrent there that wants to surface but gets repeatedly battered down by Beethoven's repeated cries. There is also a sense of detail that shines through in Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman's performance - lines project easily (no drowned bassoons here). Scharwenka's arrangements of the nine Symphonies appeared in print in 1905-07.

Here's a complete performance by the present duo, recorded at St Stephen Walbrook (the actual disc recording was taken down in The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey):

The famous "Marcia funèbre" takes on an almost granitic effect here, the relentlessness of the bass statements awe-inspiring. Throughout all of this one has to pay tribute to Scharwenka's experise: how beautifully it is laid out for the two pianists at one piano, but also how clear everything is (credit for this latter should be shared with the present performers, of course!). The Duo play with not only great strength but much sensitivity: I particularly enjoy Uys' legato lines in the slow movement; but equally as appealing is both pianists' agility in the Scherzo (and what a great immitation of the three horns there is here!).

Most impressive of all is the characterisation of the individual sections of the finale, which here feel so close - because of the instrument they are played on - to Beethoven's solo piano set of Variations and Fugue, Op. 35, "Eroica". Just to remind us of that magnificent set, here's some luxury casting: Emil Gilels, caught live at Cheltenham in 1980:

The recording by Tessa Uys and Ben Schoeman actually represents the first recording of the Scharwenka - quiet remarkable, really given not only its musical excellence but also its historical importance.

The companion work is a set of Schumann Studies in Canon Form, Op. 56. Here's a solo piano version for you to enjoy and compare and contrast, performed by the muuch-underrated Jörg Demus:

Hearing the Debussy arrangement for piano duo that takes the score (originally for pedal-piano: a piano with a bass pedal-board akin to an organ) and rearranges it is fascinating indeed. The Six Studies, Op. 56 is one of three works orignially for pedal-piano by Schumann (the other two are Four Sketches, Op. 58 and Six Fugues on BACH, Op. 60). The mix of contrapuntal mastery with echt-Romantic expression is glorious on the composer's part, and the performance here from Uys and Schoeman is little short of revelatory, the perfect complement to the Demus above. Perhaps the second, marked "Mit innigem Ausdruck" (with inner/tender expression) is the most memorable, the two voices a bar apart but in the same octave, teh counterpoint so effortless and so clearly of Schumann in its expressivity.

Interestingly it was Bizet who first transcribed the Six Studies for 'traditional' piano duet (1871); but we hear Debussy's 1891 version. Debussy was certainly aware of Bizet's score (he'd played it with his duet partner, Raoul Pugno) but Debussy's arrangement for two pianos is fascinating: perhaps it is fanciful to imagine that hints of Debussy's own sound world filter in through the gaps of Schumann's score like mottled sunlight, but that's what me ears tell me. Whatever you hear, it will be magical. The sheer delight of the fifth Study (B-Minor) is a sort of Schumannesque retort to Mendelssohn's Midummer NIght's Dream that leads to the utter calm of the final, radiant B-Major Adagio.

I've also put in a link below to the excellent Scharwenka First Concerto played by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion, but if you buy it do so via one of the second hand clicks. Amazon are selling it new for nearly £82!

While the "Eroica" is both fascinating and important, it is the Schumann/Debussy that absolutely captivated my heart.