Piano music for four hands appears in the recital room relatively infrequently, much of the repertoire often neglected and seen as intended for ‘home use’. However, the volume of Schubert’s output for four hands comes close to his solo piano works, and includes some giants, if not some of the greatest works of all in the genre. Of the Grand Duo, Imogen Cooper has said, “You certainly can’t take the stance that piano four-hand music is merely about two pianists sitting down and enjoying themselves”.

Alexander Melnikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov
© Marco Borggreve

As part of his Wigmore residency, Alexander Melnikov was joined by the great fortepiano exponent, Andreas Staier. They’ve performed this exact same programme with great success on a number of occasions, and recorded most of it for Harmonia Mundi. Their programme charts a journey from some lighter pieces through to the weightier, concluding with the Fantasie in F minor. Yet there were no mere fillers here – even the miniature Four Ländler allowed Melnikov to bring out their delicate melodies, supported by lilting accompaniment, including subtle imitations of half-melodies in Staier’s part. Melnikov took the primo part throughout the first half, with Staier taking over for the final two, most substantial, works on the programme. Of course, as this is Schubert, there is never an obvious hierarchy between the parts – no relegation to ‘um-cha-cha’ for the secondo – and this is a real chamber music endeavour of equals.

The wonderful Graf copy fortepiano brings a brightness of tone, which combined with a more percussive front, particularly in the lower registers, gives at the same time greater intimacy and edge to the sound. And if anyone can show what this instrument can do for this music, Staier’s the man, and Melnikov has clearly also embraced the stylistic subtleties of historically informed performance required here too.

Opening with Schubert’s Six Grand Marches D819, no. 3, immediately there was incision in the seemingly foursquare rhythm, with cheekily playful final beat accents, and a pleasingly light, lyrical dance trio section. Following the Ländler was one of the Six Polonaises D824, no. 1. Here, Staier set the tone with the foot-stamping rhythm before Melnikov entered with the somewhat straightforward melody. The trio section has some delightful imitation between parts, and the players enjoyed their Viennese delayed upbeats without it ever feeling mannered. The Marche caractéristique no. 1, in 6/8 time, is more of a gallop, and the pianists took this at a healthy lick, with the metallic sound of Staier’s lower repeated rhythms creating a drone effect.

Andreas Staier © Josep Molina
Andreas Staier
© Josep Molina

The Andantino D823's yearning theme is treated to some challenging variation. For example, coordinating the semiquavers in both parts in the third variation takes some doing. The ensemble was watertight here, and the radiant fourth variation, with its chromatic inflections and filigree ornamentation, was sublime. The Rondo D951 has a simple, straightforward opening theme, with no real surprises, just beautifully rich Schubertian keyboard textures. But as it develops, Schubert passes material between the hands, and after an athletic arpeggio-led section, the final return of the theme drops into the secondo part’s right hand, with delicate octave accompaniment on top. Staier made this sing, with Melnikov managing to avoid allowing the slightly percussive sound to let his accompaniment dominate.

In the Variations on an original theme D813's eight variations, Schubert takes his simple theme through a range of rhythms and decorative patterns. Now on primo, Staier’s first variation triplet decoration was fluid and subtle, whilst Melnikov’s running secondo part in the second variation was equally agile. The highlight here is the seventh variation, with its aching sense of yearning and strange unexpected harmonies. This is Schubert at his most ethereal, and the music almost reaches a harmonic stasis at one point. Staier and Melnikov held this moment perfectly, before releasing us into the trotting rhythms of the final variation.

Possibly the finest of all Schubert’s works for four hands must be the extraordinary Fantasie in F minor, D940, in which Schubert achieves that ultimate combination of sublime sweetness and tragic longing, yet also squeezes in moments of macabre humour in its Scherzo. Again, the fortepiano gave something different to the opening, the slightly jangly lower registers and opaque pedalling adding to its haunting theme. The Scherzo builds to a climactic pause, and once again, Staier and Melnikov held our collective breathes before the return of the opening theme. In the masterpiece double fugue that follows, the intensity builds to another dramatic pause, before an aching conclusion of the theme with added chromatic gestures. This has to be up there with the best of Schubert’s solo works, and Staier and Melnikov’s tautly sensitive interpretation made for a very special moment of music making.

*****