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