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Vienna, Theme & Variations
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Andante mit Variationen, KV 501 (1786)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Acht Variationen über ein Thema des Grafen von Waldstein WOO 67 (1793)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Acht Variationen über ein eigenes Thema D 813 (1824)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Variationen über ein Thema von Robert Schumann op. 23 (1863)
Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900)
Variationen über ein Thema von Johannes Brahms op. 23 (pub. 1876)
Pianoduo Amacord
rec. 2023, MCO Studio 1, Hilversum
Zip Records ZIP375 [64]

There is a romantic story behind this programme. Ivana Alkovic and Maarten den Hengst met each other in Kaffeehaus Amacord in Vienna where they were both students at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst. That this was a significant meeting is something of an understatement as they are now married and, alongside their work as Pianoduo Amacord, pursuing portfolio careers that include a variety of chamber music performing as well as having artistic directorship of the much in-demand Nieuwe Kerk Concerts in Haarlem.

I was initially a bit concerned with a programme consisting entirely of sets of variations, but this was dispelled almost as soon as the music started to take effect. Arranged chronologically, this is a well-considered collection of works with plenty of stylistic variety to take us from the 18th to the late 19th centuries. The piano sound is world class, the added range of four-handed piano communicated in all its rumbling and sparkling richness from one of Hilversum’s best studio venues.

Mozart’s Andante with Variations KV 501 is like a condensed ‘opera without words’, taking a simple songlike theme and launching a sort of micro-narrative – creating scenes with each of its five variations from amorous or melancholy intermezzi to busy ensemble act finales. Beethoven was 20 years old when he composed the Eight Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein for his friend and talented pianist Count Ferdinand Waldstein, he of the ‘Waldstein Sonata’. This connection results in more pianistic virtuosity than Mozart’s piece, and with major and minor key tensions to play with and an abundance of technical wit and wizardry this is another work to relish, right up to the final section, which is a quite extensive set of variations within a variation, and something you could almost imagine popping up in Rossini’s ‘sins of old age’.

Schubert’s Eight Variations on an Original Theme is the central work here in every sense of the word and is the piece that set Pianoduo Amacord on their path towards assembling this programme. As Mozart delivers an operatic impression there is no escaping Schubert’s fingerprints as a composer with a magnificent legacy of song writing. The more pianistic variations are filled with theatricality, and Schubert’s glorious inventiveness when it comes to tonality is present throughout, but accompaniment plus melody variations such as the bittersweet Fifth Variation are the masterstrokes that keep bringing us back for more. Brahms’ Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann Op. 23 lands us soundly into the full-fat romanticism of the mid-19th century, but thankfully into the restrained hands of a composer focussed on clarity and musical communicativeness even where the notes are at their densest. This is the point at which the piano is challenged to project the power of an entire symphony orchestra, and Pianoduo Amacord does this with ease without losing that atmosphere of Viennese refinement possessed by the entire programme.

You might be forgiven for not having heard of Heinrich von Herzogenberg, but he was a friend of Brahms and as a conductor an advocate of his music. Herzogenberg shared Brahms’ admiration of Bach, and the opus number of his Variations on a theme of Brahms Op. 23 is a tribute his friend, using the latter’s song Die Trauernde as the basis for its theme. There is no escaping the influence of Brahms in this work, but it is a confident and effective masterpiece in its own right, and with its poetically quiet coda forms a fine finale to this superb recording.

Herzogenberg’s Op. 23 is not unknown to the record catalogues, and comparison might be made with Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow’s (another married couple) recording on the Toccata Classics label (review). This only serves to point out the world class qualities in Pianoduo Amacord’s recording, which can stand comparison with any alternative for any work here, the CD also being nicely produced and documented with access points for each variation. Pianoduo Amacord’s artistic synergy and technical excellence is vibrantly evident in every bar of each score, and I warmly commend this release to any serious collector of quatre-mains piano music at its best.

Dominy Clements  

Availability: Zip Records