This is the first volume of the Brahms Four Hand Piano Music to explore arrangements of works from other composers. I wasn't deterred in the least from buying it on these grounds, though, because I knew the Schumann quartet would be worthy. In fact, I counted on it. And what's more, I've never even heard Schumann's E flat major Piano Quartet. But as I've enjoyed all of Brahms's chamber music in piano duet form (having never heard the original chamber versions, too), I felt confident that Matthies and Kohn would apply their customary musicality and pianistic skill to this Schumann work. And they do.
I may not be the most qualified to speak on behalf of this Piano Quartet since I've never even heard it before. But Schumann's music, Brahms's astute piano arrangement, and the energetic duo have all contributed to making a memorable aural experience. The first movement resembles Beethoven with its classical fire and sudden dominant chords. The music material is melodic and engaging; in my estimation, the piano duet plays with finesse and good taste. In the Scherzo movement, I was quite surprised by the Mendelssohnian flurries and fast-paced accompaniment. Even without hearing the original version I feel the Scherzo theme is all the more brilliant when played with four hands. The heart of this work (and also the most heart-felt) is in the ravishingly tender Andante cantabile. This is one of the most emotionally arresting movements I've heard from Schumann. Matthies and Kohn pour their hearts out and enhance the passionate and introspective mood of the movement. Although not as stirring as the previous movements, the Finale still manages to exhilarate with its busy passagework and vivacity. I also feel the piano duo accentuates the polyphony and frantic propulsion of the music quite well.
Unfortunately, Joachim's Hamlet Overture and Schubert's Landler are not as pleasing or musically interesting as the Schumann work. Joachim's Hamlet Overture is certainly dramatic and evocative of Shakespeare's play. At times, I felt I heard an Ophelia theme and a madness of Hamlet theme. And the beginning started out with promising angst and foreboding. Indeed, there were occasional moments of tension and climactic drama. Unlike Liszt's intelligent symphonic poem, though, Joachim's overture is undermined by his own indiscernible and intrinsic ideas that tend to meander about. There are some outstanding moments, but they are usually forgotten after listening to the connecting material, music that dwells in murky waters.
The least interesting aspect of this recording must be the Twenty Schubert Landler. I don't feel comfortable thinking ill of anything Schubert wrote, but I'm afraid the Twenty Landler are trivial and skimpy pieces. Most are never over a minute long and seem rather stale, light, and uninteresting. I suppose they were meant to be filler for the recording, but if indeed Brahms made a piano arrangement of the Scherzo from Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat major, as Keith Anderson says in the liner-notes, I think Matthies or Kohn should have recorded it alongside the piano quartet of the same key. I have no doubt this disc would have then garnered a 5-star rating.
Bottom line: Brahms's Four Hand arrangement of Schumann's Piano Quartet Op. 47 is radiant and beautiful; the performers play with spirit and pianistic prowess. Honestly, one should really buy this CD for the piano arrangement of this piano quartet and keep their expectations low regarding the Joachim and Schubert pieces.