Sonata op. 34b; Haydn variations op. 56b (Duo Kontarsky)
Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky DGG
Two-piano works are often a reduction, a process in which by definition something is lost. They are also usually far beyond the resources of the home amateur, whose lot it is to keep such music alive. So these two B features have tended to move in ever-decreasing domestic circles; which is sad, because each is not only a fine work but also in a sense an original one. The former certainly preceded its scoring as the Piano Quintet op.34, and the Haydn variations may well have begun in keyboard form. Some aural comparison with their better-known counterparts is inevitable; the differences leap to the ear. The variations, for example, have distinct gains (inner string parts in III sound much clearer on the second piano) as well as shadowy losses (some contrasts in timbre, such as the horn solos in IV, are absorbed within the general texture). But the required effort of hearing the keyboard music anew in its own right will be well rewarded. Ideally the performers would be two concert soloists with an especially deep emotional rapport; Brahms and Clara Schumann for example, and no doubt the composer had that conjunction much in mind. The Kontarskys are more like highly-skilled duo pianists, neat, fluent and precise, not always making enough of the intended contrasts of register, texture or dynamics. The cover picture seems well designed to illustrate that notion; there they sit, smiling and spruce, at the ends of a sofa, like visitors faintly ill at case in the salon. But (as DG might have reflected) that impression is largely misleading. The pair have real power, memorably unleashed in the scherzo and finale of op.34b, together with rhythmic drive and urgency throughout and above all a strong feeling for the music as an independent keyboard entity. It needed only a greater sense of improvisation, with the attendant effects of risk and vulnerability, to give a truly gripping reading of what Clara heard as “a great tragic story” in the F minor and similarly in the hardly less dramatic Haydn variations. Even so, Brahmsians should find these accounts both informative and compelling.
The Musical Times, Feb. 1980 (p. 105) © the estate of eric sams