Sunday, July 2, 2017

Divine Art Collects its 7 Schubert Piano Duet CDs in One Box

In 1998 and 1999 the husband-and-wife piano duo of Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow recorded the full canon of Franz Schubert’s original compositions for four hands on one keyboard for the Maxim label. All recordings were made in the St. John the Baptist Church of Alkborough in North Lincolnshire in England. The instrument was a Grotrian-Steinweg piano maintained by technician Philip Kennedy.

For those who think (like my spell-checking software) that the source of the piano involved some gross spelling mistake, the first Grotrian-Steinweg piano factory was built by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in 1835, and Friedrich Grotrian became a partner in 1856. Steinweg would later move to the United States, where he changed his name and founded Steinway & Sons. The Wikipedia page for Grotrian-Steinweg describes the company as a “manufacturer of luxury pianos;” and there is definitely the impression that individual quality counts for more than the efficiency of mass production. This involved such “specialty” items as an instrument that enabled quarter-tones and provided the pianist with three manuals, as well as a single instrument for two-piano compositions:

from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license)

Last year Stephen Sutton, Chief Executive Officer of Divine Art, approached Goldstone and Clemmow about reissuing their recordings on his label, both individually and collected in a single box. Unfortunately, Goldstone died of a prolonged illness on January 2 of this year, while he was assisting Sutton on the finishing touches of the notes and artwork for the accompanying booklet. The box set of all seven CDs was released about a month and a half ago.

It is worth reproducing the full title of the accompanying booklet:
This is a far cry from a systematic traversal through Otto Erich Deutsch’s thematic catalog of everything that Schubert wrote for four hands at one keyboard. (Nevertheless, it is worth noting that D. 1 is a four-hand fantasia in G major.) Instead, each CD has been conceived as a recital, usually with one “major” composition joined by an assortment of shorter pieces. The “encores” at the end of each disc come from a collection of eight polonaises that Robert Schumann wrote at the age of eighteen, supposedly inspired by Schubert. They were not published until 1933. One polonaise concludes each of the first six CDs, and two conclude the last one.

All of this makes for an impressive project; and, when I first learned of Divine Art’s plan to issue a “complete works” box, there was no way I was not going to add that box to my personal collection. Nevertheless, I think it is important to observe that all of the Schubert compositions in this set would probably be better described as “social” music, as distinct from “concert” music. Indeed, almost all of the pieces in this collection (if not all of them in its entirety) represent the repertoire of the Schubertiad, described by Denis Arnold and Alan Jefferson in The Oxford Companion to Music as “an informal meeting of friends to sing, play, and listen.” I was thus drawn into this music, first shown to me by a graduate student in the Music Department at the University of Pennsylvania, by its social value and the recognition that making music did not have to be confined to virtuoso performers accessible through the price of tickets or recordings.

Listening to this collection in its entirety, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it had had traversed through my own experiences with any number of friends and colleagues, whose skills were as modest as my own. Indeed, I cannot enumerate the number of conversations I have held in which the slightest mention of the four-hand repertoire would immediately trigger the question, “Do you know the F minor fantasia?” I suppose that knowledge of D. 940 has achieved the status as a “sign of recognition” among amateur pianists, rather like the handshake among Freemasons. In my case I recognized its value in providing me with my one opportunity to play for (but not with) a Nobel laureate!

Nevertheless, this raises the question of how those who do not “know the handshake” will respond to this music. To be fair, I have also heard a fair share of the repertoire performed in concert; and there have been some impressive concert recordings by distinguished recitalists. So, whatever the social factors may be, this is music that can hold its own with a pair of pianists playing for an audience. However, I believe that the pairing itself needs to reflect the underlying social context. Two leading pianists who happen to be in the same place at the same time do not necessarily make for a good duo playing Schubert. (Readers may recall my jaundiced reaction to the joint recital given by Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin this past April. That involved two pianos, and they did not play any Schubert. Nevertheless, my discontent still involved the apparent lack of any “social connection beyond the music” between the two players.)

From that point of view, a key virtue of the Divine Art collection is that it is the product of the efforts of a presumably happily married couple. Goldstone and Clemmow consistently found the sweet spot between the social world and the concert world in those recordings they originally made for Maxim. Presumably, those recordings reflected their having found that sweet spot in the recitals they had played leading up to the recording sessions in 1998 and 1999. Will listeners unfamiliar with this social dimension of the music-making experience appreciate just how subtle that sweet spot is? Quite honestly, I have no way of knowing, since I cannot unlearn my own past experiences.

All I can say is that, in the context of those experiences, I find all of the recordings in this collection to be infectiously engaging. Those who have had Schubertiad experiences of their own will probably understand the connotations of that last sentence. However, I hope that those who have not experienced a Schubertiad-like event may still get a feel for what it is like by listening to these recordings.

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