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
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 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.