Robert Schumann’s works for piano duo have been enriched with the arrangement of one of his most important chamber music works, the Piano Quintet Op. 44. Johannes Brahms had arranged this composition for piano four hands, a version which Clara Schumann performed in public several times, but which has become lost. Clara’s own arrangement, on the other hand, was printed and is present here in its first recording. Robert Schumann’s “Pictures from the East” have a touch of oriental colour, while “Andante and Variations” show the composer from his lyrical-virtuoso, man of the world side. The Munich Duo d'Accord won second prize in the international ARD music competition in 2000. Today the duo plays concerts throughout Europe, the USA and in Asia. The debut album of Duo d'Accord with works by Max Reger (OC 353) for piano duo has received outstanding reviews in the specialist press.

Finding freedom within boundaries
Works for two pianos and piano four hands by Robert Schumann, performed by the Duo d'Accord

After the euphoric reception by classic fans and critics alike for its recording of works by Reger, the Duo d’Accord now demonstrates its boldness in taking on exceptional, fascinating repertoire by Robert Schumann (1810-56): his lyrical but stormy Quintet for Piano and String Quartet in E-flat Major op. 44 (1842) in the piano four hands adaptation by Clara Schumann (1819–96), the profound Andante and Variations in B-flat Major op. 46 for two pianos (1843) and the Pictures from the East op. 66 (1848).

The seldom heard quintet arrangement is a virtually forgotten masterpiece – that as this recording – the first ever of this piece! – makes clear, should definitely find its way into the concert repertoire, not as a rarity, but as a mainstay. Johannes Brahms himself also arranged the composition for piano four hands (1854) – a work that Clara Schumann particularly loved and performed herself on a number of occasions, e.g. during her 1844 tour of Russia. According to Schumann researcher Joachim Draheim, it is highly likely that her arrangement, written in 1857 and published in 1858 by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, was an easier version of the eminently difficult four-hands setting by Brahms, which is now lost. Every pore of the version for piano four hands is infused with the spirit of Schumann’s original: that unmistakable mix of forwards motion and dreamy reverie associated with Florestan and Eusebius, the imaginary characters who pervade Schumann’s early piano works such as Carnaval op. 9 or Davidsbündlertänze op. 6 and who are practically a synonym for Schumann’s “romantic split personality”.

Such an interpretation, however, is somewhat one-sided, because when Schumann began composing, the period of literary Romanticism was nearing its end; the excitement of the early Romantics of the Schlegel and Novalis school was giving way to deep resignation or retreat into inner worlds. Possibly a better understanding of Schumann can be found by looking at the spirit of the restoration between the Vienna Congress (1815) and the begin of the 1848 Revolution – an age which connected the feeling of simple imitation with a longing for “a new, poetic time” (Schumann). It is an epoch that reveals the “contradiction between the forces of motion and the forces [of a steady state]” (Dieter Langewiesche), not only in Schumann’s sketches, essays and other literary works. We also see here the tug-of-war between simultaneous opposites that characterizes wide stretches of Schumann’s oeuvre and that can be heard in the works on this CD: a kaleidoscope of moods in which contrary feelings and expressions such as happiness and pain, seriousness and irony, hope and disappointment, excited anticipation and resignation, intimacy and the monumental are often not presented one after another – but in uncompromising simultaneity.

Unquestionably, Schumann’s Andante and Variations and Pictures from the East are the climax of his works for two pianos and four hands respectively. The Andante and Variations was originally written for two pianos, two cellos and horn, but rearranged by Schumann himself for two pianos. For many decades of the 19th century, it was the only really famous work for two pianos, and was performed by Clara Schumann together with celebrities like Johannes Brahms, Anton Rubinstein and Ignaz Moscheles on numerous occasions. It falls rather in the sphere of lyric relaxation in a major key; elegant and amazingly effective in its diplomatic virtuosity. Schumann especially shows his worldly side here. The Pictures from the East – cast overwhelmingly in minor – contrast greatly with the Andante and Variations. Six impromptus inspired by Friedrich Rückert’s free adaptations of the Arabian Maqams of Hariri, these pieces use local color to suggest oriental associations, using, of course, Schumann’s unmistakable compositional language.

Shao-Yin Huang and Sebastian Euler emphasize the intensely sensitive interpretation that these works require: It is a particularly attractive challenge for us as a duo to help listeners experience Schumann’s freedom of expression while also obeying his works’ formal and structural laws. We must constantly test their boundaries. Particularly in op. 46 and op. 66, things first seem to develop clearly – it’s only after taking a second look that one discovers the hidden dimensions under the seemingly simple surface. It’s similar to Schubert: one constantly wanders the narrow line between allusion and open enjoyment, between the natural flow and careful intervention in this flow.

One must feel exactly what the other is doing, imagine what might come next and incorporate that into one’s own playing. When pedaling as well, one must always be acting and reacting in realtime, depending on how the music is flowing at any given instant. It was important to us to retain the clarity of the works. We didn’t want to generate an orchestral sound à la Brahms, but an unmistakable Schumann sound. It took us a while to find just this balance. But we got deeper and deeper into this common feeling for Schumann’s language. At some point, it happened all by itself – free of any gestures and entrances. That’s what we are the happiest about: that we succeeded together in letting the music develop from itself, by itself.

Leander Hotaki
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler

(The quote is taken from an interview by the author with the Duo d'Accord.)