Piano four hands ensemble DUO Stephanie & Saar (Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) continue their series of recordings that challenge listeners to hear iconic works in new guises. Catalyzed by Beethoven's own arrangement of the famous Grosse Fuge op. 133, the duo presents Hugo Ulrich and Robert Wittman's stately transcription of the op. 130 string quartet to which the iconic fugue originally belonged, alongside Schubert's brooding F minor Fantasie, D. 940.
String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130Ludwig van Beethoven
|01||I. Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro|
I. Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro
|03||III. Andante con moto ma non troppo|
III. Andante con moto ma non troppo
|04||IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai|
IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
|05||V. Cavatine. Adagio molto espressivo|
V. Cavatine. Adagio molto espressivo
|06||Grosse Fuge, Op. 134|
Grosse Fuge, Op. 134
|07||Fantasie in F minor, D. 940|
Fantasie in F minor, D. 940
Piano four hands ensemble Duo Stephanie and Saar continues its series of releases highlighting transcriptions of masterworks. From Bach’s The Art of Fugue to three of Beethoven’s op. 18 quartets, their performances of these transcriptions open up new perspectives on iconic repertoire, revealing essential elements of structure and construction of these works that can be less apparent in their customary versions.
Beethoven himself was neither a fan of four hands piano nor transcriptions, and yet, the transcription heard here of the famous Grosse Fugue is his own. This speaks to the work’s idiosyncratic place in his oeuvre, both as a mammoth and unruly fugue that shocked his contemporaries and also as a movement of a landmark work that nevertheless stands on its own, never quite fitting within the op. 130 quartet without an asterisk. The existence of this transcription inspired the duo’s overall project and is heard alongside Hugo Ulrich and Robert Wittman’s transcription of the remainder of op. 130. And it is Ulrich and Wittman’s title of the fifth movement of op. 130, “Cavatine,” that gives the album its title — a subtle reminder of the difference between this performance and the string quartet versions, which most often list the movement as “Cavatina.”
Though it does not carry the same lore as the Grosse Fugue, the opening movement of op. 130 is arguably as expansive and grand. Heard in this instrumentation, Beethoven’s deft voice leading and harmonic pacing becomes even more explicit. The fleet scalar figurations are energized by the percussive quality of hammers on strings as opposed to bows. The second movement Presto takes on a terse character, especially notable in the staccato articulations of the B section. The enigmatic descending chromatic passage that precedes the recapitulation is even more subversive in a keyboard setting, less gestural and more wryly humorous.
The light elegance of the "Andante" and "Alla Danza tedesca” is also underscored in these versions, highlighting Haydn’s influence on his style. The “Cavatine” is the heart of the quartet in any performance, but particularly in Stephanie and Saar’s interpretation. The pathos of late Beethoven translates seamlessly here; this music lies on the keyboard with the same timeless quality as the slow movements of his late piano sonatas.
From the opening trilled chord of the Grosse Fugue, Beethoven’s daring ownership over the original material is clear. Throughout, he makes decisions to adapt the work to four hands, adjusting register and emphasizing a dynamic interplay between voices and the two performers. Perhaps the most striking difference hearing this music on keyboard is the added contrapuntal clarity; the sonic labor involved in realizing the dense fugue on string instruments manifests itself differently on keyboard, and we are able to hear Beethoven’s masterful puzzle presented with more pitch and timbral transparency. Of all the movements of the four hands version of the quartet, the Grosse Fugue takes on a life of its own most forcefully; perhaps his recognition of the potential was behind Beethoven’s motivation to make this unique version.
In contrast to Beethoven, Schubert was enamored with the four-hand genre, writing more works for the instrumentation than any other composer. He wrote his Fantasie in F minor D. 940 two years after Beethoven composed op. 130, dedicating it to Caroline Esterhazy, a student of his during his summer employment at the court of the nobleman. The piece is brooding and tumultuous, but, like Beethoven’s B-flat string quartet, hinges on a weighty fugue at its end. If op. 130 represents a mature, reflective Beethoven pushing through an embedded classicism to cathartic heights, Schubert’sFantasie takes passion as its starting point, and embodies his fundamental core as a Romantic. In presenting a program that highlights these two towering works, Duo Stephanie and Saar balance impulses of hope and despair, order and unbridled emotion, an encapsulation of a turbulent time in the third decade of the 19th century, and indeed, mirrored in our own era.
-- Dan Lippel
“Pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia collaborate as DUO Stephanie & Saar in dazzling performances filled with visceral excitement, elegance and artistic vision. “ Stephanie and Saar’s last night’s performance once again recalled all the epithets of elegant and innovative, that have been following them throughout their career.” ~ Radio Sarajevo
Recent career highlights include multiple performances of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at New York City’s Lincoln Center and other venues in Tel Aviv, Sacramento, Portland and Providence, among others. Miami’s Dranoff Two Piano Foundation featured Stephanie and Saar in a jazz-inspired program at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center and Piano Slam with DJ Cardi at the Adrienne Arsht Center. They are regulars and audience favorites at New York City’s hip (le) poisson rouge, selling out every show they present at the club.
The duo are founders and artistic directors of Makrokosmos Project, a critically acclaimed Oregon-based new music festival featuring dynamic American composers of our time. In its sixth year, the festival is entirely driven by community support. Some of the featured composers include Kenji Bunch, Gabriela Lena Frank, Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe, John Luther Adams, Karen Tanaka, Michael Johanson and Alexander Schwarzkopf, among many others.
As probing recording artists, the duo explores repertoire with concomitant classical and contemporary sensibilities. Bach Crossings, their debut album on New Focus Recordings, features whimsically soulful four hand transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach by György Kurtág. God’s Time is the Very Best of Times, a favorite with audiences both in person and online, was featured on the holocaust documentary feature film Red Trees. Beethoven Dialogues, their first album showcasing Beethoven Quartets in four hand transcriptions, was chosen as Album of the Week by NYC’s WQXR 105.9FM.
Stephanie and Saar are the first piano duo to perform and record the complete Art of Fugue in four hands and two piano settings. “Their vision of an Art of Fugue that is a work of performance art, not an academic piece to be listened to reverently... This is creative music- making of an extraordinarily high level.” ~ Art Music Lounge
Married to one another since 2005, Stephanie and Saar met by reading through Beethoven Quartet transcriptions, a project encouraged by Leon Fleisher. Outdoor enthusiasts, they can be found hiking backcountry trails along the peaks of the Pacific Northwest, or climbing granite boulders on the Appalachian Trail in the Northeast. Please visit them at www.stephsaarduo.comhttp://www.stephsaarduo.com
This piano duo disc by Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia (DUO) has expressive virtuosity written all over it. It’s not simply four-hands piano that has been captured on disc, but repertoire as poignant as it is rare. Its late Beethoven is paired with late Schubert. And its music is evocative of the unrequited love both men lived with. In Schubert’s case, it was also a life lived in the permanent and towering shadow of the master, so much so that he – in an almost Shakespearean kind of twist – was even buried next to Beethoven.
All of this spills over into the highly charged program on Cavatine. DUO Stephanie and Saar has completely subsumed every emotive aspect of this music. There is even an extraordinarily eerie seamlessness of how Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major Op.130 slides into the Cavatine, then into the Grosse Fuge Op.134, before ending up in Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D940.
This is a made-for-each partnership. The amazing rapport between Ho and Ahuvia and their impeccable style unite to produce winning results. The warmth and tangible empathy on display here bring out all of the music’s emotive aspects – especially in the intensely lyrical movements of the Quartet in B-flat and the Cavatine, which gives way to the chromatic boldness of the Grosse Fuge and finally in the rhapsodic features of Schubert’s Fantasie. All of this makes a disc to absolutely die for.
— Raul de Gama, 5.07.2021
The late Leon Fleisher encouraged Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia to explore Beethoven’s string quartets in four-hand arrangements for performing purposes. The husband-and-wife duo released Op 18 Nos 1, 4 and 6 in 2014 and now follow up with Op 130. The pianists use the Hugo Ulrich/Robert Wittmann transcription for the first five movements, while for Beethoven’s original finale they switch over to the composer’s own four-hand arrangement of the Grosse Fuge. Stephanie and Saar strongly feel that Beethoven’s revised shorter finale is musically less effective, yet I wish they had recorded it as well, at least to allow listeners a choice.
In any event, the music loses nothing in translation, save for the piano’s inherent inability to vary dynamics on sustained notes. Although the pianists coax full-bodied sonorities from their instrument, they convey leanness and transparency through careful attention to balances within chords, inner lines, variety of articulation and the composer’s trademark subito dynamics. In the first movement, you’ll notice how they take every slur and staccato seriously without sounding the least bit rigid, while judging the sudden adagio moments to perfection. They eschew the second movement’s Presto directive for a more deliberate pace that allows the main section’s syncopations and Trio’s triplets to generate more tension and momentum than one often hears when the music is mercilessly driven.
By contrast, the third-movement Andante proves decisively con moto, where the détaché writing sounds spiky yet not percussive; the players’ rhythmic precision creates character and suspense. The ‘Alla danza tedesca’ fourth movement’s seeming simplicity is offset by Beethoven’s unpredictable dynamics, which, of course, Stephanie and Saar take on faith. I suspect that pianistic necessity dictates the faster than usual tempo of the ‘Cavatine’, yet it’s somewhat refreshing to hear this music convey gracefulness rather than anguish. It sets the stage for a grand and majestic Grosse Fuge made up of epic paragraphs and long, intelligently shaped lines, as if the duo were channeling their inner Klemperer – and that’s a supreme compliment!
In Schubert’s ubiquitous F minor Fantasie, Stephanie and Saar find their centre in the turbulent second section, and settle upon an ideal tempo for the Scherzo that allows for both lilt and linear cogency. And by taking time with the finale, Schubert’s fugal writing truly resonates, free of the clutter and stress one often hears. A highly distinctive disc.
— Jed Distler, 1.01.2021
The Vienna of yesterday and the Vienna of today evoked in the beautiful image on the cover, a current photograph that could well have been taken, with the appropriate licenses, a century and a half ago. Eternal and imperial Vienna, autumnal, immovable, captivating under an opaline patina equal to the time when Beethoven and Schubert inhabited it, where they were even briefly neighbors and where they are today in the cemetery where they are buried. Faced with this splendid work by DUO, the curious relationship, distant and at the same time endearing, between the two composers is clearly established, firmly established. Schubert worshiped the genius of Bonn, but it must not be forgotten that the admiration was mutual. Beethoven expressed on his deathbed "Schubert has my soul," and Franz asked to be buried next to his idol, originally in the Währing cemetery (today they rest in the Zentralfriedhof), which would happen just a year later, at only thirty-one. Schubert felt that his music could not be compared with that of the teacher and it was that humility that made it even greater. In pairs, alike and different at the same time, DUO has the good sense of equating them in its noble and tempestuous reading.
If the Austrian composed like no other for piano for four hands, the German was more reluctant but he transcribed the devilish Grosse Fuge of his, who else could have done him justice in such a personal way? In the framework of that same inquisitive and defiant spirit, the duo made up of Stephanie and Saar, (in their fourth recording recital of transcriptions for four hands) interpret and reel it, illuminating unsuspected facets and then confronting it with the incomparable lyricism of the Schubertian Fantasia D940. Likewise, the transcription by Hugo Ulrich and Robert Wittman of the first five movements of the String Quartet Op. 130 complete a tour-de-force where, as in previous recitals, the exquisite pair of pianists (husband and wife in real life) display an impeccable sound and stylistic balance.
It is an album of lacerating intensity that testifies to the expressive decantation of both geniuses in the last sections of their lives where between notes, in the minimal but abysmal silences, the constant absence of love in which they were submerged is tacitly perceived. Hence, the Schubertian Fantasy (with its equivalent final fugue) comes as a relief, evocative, like a bucolic sigh that puts an end to the initial turbulence where, it is worth noting, the DUO allows itself to rescue the nested tenderness of the colossus.
Because of its cathartic point of view, it is a program with dangerous edges that DUO has managed to capture with millimeter detail, inciting continuous double readings and interpretations and where even the title Cavatine - the elegant Adagio, soul of the Opus 130 Quartet - suggests a gentle and innocent invitation when in reality, it is a stream that will become a river that leads to the inexorable sound cataract of the Grosse Fuge.
Original and with four “voices”, DUO encapsulates an era proposing an almost Borgian set of mirrors; in the end the listener understands that he is looking at the two composers as well as the two performers and that ultimately he is looking at himself.
(original in Spanish below, translated by Google Translate)
La Viena de ayer y la Viena de hoy evocadas en la bella imagen de la portada, una fotografía actual que bien pudo haber sido tomada, con las licencias del caso, hace un siglo y medio. Viena eterna e imperial, otoñal, inamovible, atrapante bajo una pátina opalina igual al tiempo en que Beethoven y Schubert la habitaban, donde incluso fueron brevemente vecinos y donde hoy lo son en el cementerio donde se están enterrados. Frente a este espléndido trabajo de DUO, la curiosa relación, distante y a la vez entrañable, entre ambos compositores queda en evidencia, firmemente establecida. Schubert veneró al genio de Bonn, pero no hay que olvidar que la admiración era mutua. Beethoven expresó en su lecho de muerte Schubert tiene mi alma, y Franz pidió ser enterrado junto a su ídolo, originalmente en el cementerio de Währing (hoy descansan en el Zentralfriedhof), lo que ocurriría tan sólo un año después, con sólo treinta y uno. Schubert sintió que su música no podía compararse con la del maestro y fue esa humildad la que lo hizo aún mas grande. De a pares, semejantes y diferentes a la vez, DUO tiene el buen tino de equipararlos en su lectura tan noble como tempestuosa.
Si el austríaco compuso como ningún otro para piano a cuatro manos, el alemán fue mas renuente pero transcribió su endemoniada Grosse Fuge, quien otro podría haberle hecho justicia de modo tan personal?. En el marco de ese mismo espíritu inquisitivo y desafiante, el duo integrado por Stephanie y Saar, (en su cuarto recital discográfico de transcripciones para cuatro manos) la interpretan y desgranan iluminando facetas insospechadas para luego enfrentarlo con el lirismo incomparable de la Fantasia D940 schubertiana. Asimismo, la transcripción de Hugo Ulrich y Robert Wittman de los primeros cinco movimientos del Cuarteto de cuerdas Op. 130 completan un tour-de-force donde, como en los recitales anteriores, la eximia pareja de pianistas (marido y mujer en la vida real) hacen gala de impecable balance sonoro y estilístico.
Es un álbum de una intensidad lacerante que testimonia la decantación expresiva de ambos genios en los últimos tramos de sus existencias donde entre notas, en los mínimos pero abismales silencios se percibe tácitamente la constante ausencia de amor en la que estuvieron sumidos. De ahí que la Fantasia schubertiana (con su equivalente fuga final ) llega como un alivio, evocativa, como un bucólico suspiro que pone fin a las turbulencias iniciales donde, vale destacar, el DUO se permite rescatar la anidada ternura del coloso.
Por lo catártico, es un programa de aristas peligrosas que DUO ha sabido plasmar con minuciosidad milimétrica incitando a continuas dobles lecturas e interpretaciones y donde hasta el título Cavatine – el elegante Adagio, alma del Cuarteto Opus 130 – sugiere una invitación gentil e inocente cuando en realidad es arroyo que se convertirá en rio que conduce a la inexorable catarata sonora de la Gran Fuga.
Original y a cuatro “voces”, DUO encapsula una era proponiendo un juego de espejos casi borgiano; en el final el oyente comprende que está mirando a los dos compositores tanto como a los dos intérpretes y que en última instancia, se está mirando a si mismo.
The duo of Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia return with Cavatine, where the piano virtuosos reimagine legendary work in a new environment as they interpret Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert in their very alluring formula.
The first six tracks offer us Beethoven’s “String Quartet In B-Flat Major, Op. 130”, where the keys vary from soft to quick and agile on “Adagio ma non troppo- Allegra”, to the dancing melodies of the playful “Presto”. Later on, “Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai” displays dynamic interaction between the four hands, while “Grosse Fuge Opus 134” uses its 16+ minutes to offer firm, nearly abrasive keys, as well as flowing key acrobatics that you can’t help but admire.
The final track, Schubert’s “Fantasie in F minor, D. 940”, finds the keys emitting a contemplative, ominous atmosphere of unparalleled skill and sublime, adventurous musicianship.
A record that coincides with Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Stephanie & Saar perform with an elegance and artistic quality here, and if their chemistry seems very intimate, well, it should as they have been married for 15 years now. If you’ve got an ear for piano music, it’s best you’re prepared to spend much time with Cavatine, and you’ll likely appreciate every second of it.
— Tom Haugen, 3.04.2021
It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but DUO Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.
The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.
This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.
The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.
The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.
The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.
The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.
The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.
This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.
This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting.
— Allan J. Cronin, 3.26.2021
The Beethoven performance by the wife-and-husband duo of Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia, on a New Focus Recordings release, seems on the face of it to be even less authentic than Zhao’s handling of Haydn’s concertos. But matters are more complicated than that. Beethoven’s B-flat quartet, Op. 130, is the one for which he famously wrote the Grosse Fuge that he was then persuaded to discard and publish separately, substituting a less-forbidding finale to cap the previous five movements. Beethoven himself arranged the Grosse Fuge for piano four hands, and what Ho and Ahuvia do is perform the quartet with its first five movements transcribed by Hugo Ulrich and Robert Wittmann, followed by the Grosse Fuge in Beethoven’s four-hand adaptation. Clearly Ho and Ahuvia believe this version of the quartet works better than the one with the replacement finale, although it would have been nice if they had recorded the Ulrich/Wittmann version of that movement as well, to give listeners a chance to make up their own minds (it would have fit on the same CD). In any case, the quartet in this guise is fascinating to hear. The piano cannot vary dynamics on sustained notes, as string instruments can, but the keyboard sound works well for this quartet thanks to the care the performers take to prevent any muddiness, especially in chordal passages, and to give the music a welcome level of transparency. The interpretation is unusual in some respects, or at least nontraditional: the very brief second movement is slower here than its Presto designation, which actually makes it easier to hear the syncopations, and the third movement – Andante con moto ma non troppo – ignores the last part of that tempo designation and moves along quite smartly, the intriguing pacing providing a greater sense of suspense than most performances offer. Less successful is the over-fast Cavatine, whose emotion seems more surface-level than usual, although it could be argued that the movement’s comparative lightness of character in this reading better sets up the grandeur of the Grosse Fuge than would a darker approach. That vast last movement is played particularly impressively, and although it does indeed tend to overbalance the quartet to some degree, it has a magisterial presence that Ho and Ahuvia convey to very fine effect. This quartet transcription pairs very interestingly indeed with Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, D. 940, which spins out at even greater length than the Grosse Fuge and encompasses in its way as many moods as does the entirety of Beethoven’s Op. 130. Here the tempo choices seem particularly apt, especially in the contrast between the bright and very nicely paced Scherzo and the well-spun-out finale. The differing treatment of fugal writing by Beethoven in the Gross Fuge in 1826 and Schubert a mere two years later is revelatory of the burgeoning Romantic era in piano music, and Ho and Ahuvia do a first-rate job of exploring both the differences between these two important fugal works and the similarities between them.
These things aren’t always a bad idea, or a pointless exercise, or even a not-so-pointless if merely functional effort to supply certain solo-repertoire-hungry instrumentalists (trumpet, guitar, mandolin, accordion–and even piano four-hands) with something new and respectable to play. Transcribing (as opposed to arranging) works for instruments that weren’t originally intended or indicated by the composer is an honored tradition that often yields results that supersede the merely practical, even providing enlightening insights that enable us to hear the original in new, interesting, equally satisfying ways.
Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia are experienced and devoted performers of Beethoven quartet transcriptions for piano four hands, and in an earlier review–of the Duo’s renditions of three of the Op. 18 quartets (see reviews archive)–colleague Jed Distler commented not only on the “skillfully-wrought transcriptions” (by Hugo Ulrich and Robert Wittman) but on the pianists’ “chamber-like aesthetic”, and “refined and intelligent interpretations”, all of which applies to the current performance of Op. 130. (Ho and Ahuvia play Beethoven’s own transcription of the Grosse Fuge.)
Listening to a transcription–especially of a complex work such as this–is certainly more interesting if you already know the original fairly well; you never know when some feature of musical interest you’ve never heard before will suddenly reveal itself! You may hear things that simply increase your appreciation of the original–and the insight and skill of the performers–or, you may hear things that convince you that the original conception works better. For me, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the familiar themes and noticing how these two players treated textures, articulation, and balances, and how they managed phrasing, especially in sustained melodic passages.
Mostly, it works: thanks to the masterful transcriptions and the sensitivity of the players, particularly regarding clarity of inner voices, we hear the full dynamic and expressive range of this glorious quartet, albeit embodied in the uniform sound of one piano, without the nuance and timbral characteristics unique to four stringed instruments. My one reservation regards the famed Cavatina movement of Op. 130: it misses the sustained tension of the strings, and thus loses much of the movement’s considerable emotional impact. Rather than a smooth, flowing legato, enhanced with espressivo dynamic effects, for some reason Ho and Ahuvia’s approach is square, plodding, and detached.
Of course the Schubert Fantasie D. 940 is not a transcription, and, as one of the composer’s most important four-hand piano works, it’s been recorded many times, probably best overall by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu. And after the monumental Beethoven quartet, it may be best to leave the Schubert for a separate listening session–the excellent performances by Ho and Ahuvia deserve fresh attention and will certainly reward serious fans of this repertoire. As for the Beethoven, ultimately the questions are, do these works prove suitable for the treatments they receive, and do the transcribers and performers realize their potential, technically and interpretively? On all counts, the answer is definitely “yes”.
— David Vernier, 7.08.2021
Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia are a piano duo with a wide-ranging repertoire, performing under the name Duo Stephanie and Saar. Their recorded output includes Bach’s The Art of Fugue and Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, and they collaborated with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2001 in a performance of Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark. While studying at the Peabody Conservatory they were encouraged by Leon Fleisher to explore the piano four-hands transcriptions of Beethoven quartets. This new disc is titled Cavatine, an adaptation of Cavatina, the title of the fifth movement of op. 130.
The main work on the program, String Quartet No. 13, op. 130, actually features two separate transcriptions. The first five movements are taken from an arrangement by Hugo Ulrich (a German composer born in 1827, the year Beethoven died) and Robert Wittman (about whom I can find little, but he worked with Ulrich on all the quartets). Stephanie and Saar wanted to substitute the Grosse Fuge for Beethoven’s second, shorter finale. That arrangement for piano four-hands comes from Beethoven himself. The program is filled out with Schubert’s hauntingly beautiful F-Minor Fantasie, D 940, for piano four-hands.
According to the Duo’s program notes, Beethoven disliked transcriptions but made an exception for the Grosse Fuge, perhaps recognizing the difficulties it presented to string players. Obviously hearing music written for string instruments on what is basically a percussion instrument is a different experience, and when I listen to transcriptions of this nature I do not attempt to compare them directly with the original. I approach transcriptions as their own independent genre.
The piano sound is percussive enough that when I first started listening, the difference from string sound was jarring. But after a few minutes my ears adjusted. This was aided by the sensitive, vital performance from Stephanie and Saar. The two pianists are a married couple, which no doubt helps in the tightness of their ensemble and the sense of unity in their conception. In the third-movement "Andante con moto ma non troppo" of op. 130 their lyrical touch is lovely. The fourth movement, marked "Alla danza tedesca" (Like a German dance), is played with lilt and sprightly articulation.
Their performance of the Grosse Fuge is very impressive; it begins with great force and makes the most of the contrast between dynamic extremes. The performers clarify the various contrapuntal lines perfectly. I hope I don’t offend anyone by indicating that I actually enjoy this version better than Beethoven’s original, and I am not surprised that he himself chose to make a four-hands arrangement.
Stephanie and Saar give the Schubert Fantasie a performance that gives full voice to its important dramatic component while not slighting the lyrical element. When the Fantasie begins one thinks it is going to be a really lovely song, but it quickly erupts with dramatic force. The music unfolds by alternating between the turbulent and the delicate, and in this performance everything comes together to culminate in a powerful fugue. The recorded competition for the Schubert is much greater, and I cannot put this at the level of, for example, Richter and Britten (Decca) or Perahia and Lupu (Sony). It does, though, still provide its own pleasures.
— Henry Fogel, 9.06.2021
Who would transcribe a late Beethoven quartet for four hands piano? The answers would start with Beethoven himself, who created the four-hand version of the Grosse Fuge found here. The notes by the duo-pianists mention Beethoven’s typical aversion to such transcriptions. However, “putting his own bias aside, Beethoven unleashes an outrageous four-hand version of the ugly-duckling fugue, diverting from his own string quartet version countless times.” So one point of interest of this new disc is to hear those deviations. Elsewhere I am not sure. There are shifts in sound and texture in the complex opening movement of the quartet that don’t sound in the piano version: I hear them in my head as played by the Budapest Quartet. Here the distinctions sound papered over. Not so, however, in the exuberant Presto, to my ears the most authentic-sounding movement here, and also the least complex. What a fearsome clatter they make at the beginning of the Grosse Fuge! It’s a rather brutal performance. In the Schubert, I admire the softer, more Romantic passages which are beautiful and rhythmically coherent, but not so much the clangorous louder pages. For that work, I prefer the older recording by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu. © 2021 Fanfare
— Michael Ullmann, 9.06.2021