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James Harrington
American Record Guide, September 2011

This is an outstanding release and one that might easily be overlooked. While I am not generally a period instrument person, I do appreciate hearing works performed on an excellent instrument appropriate for the period where they were written. Here we have not one, but two fascinating fortepianos: Caspar Katholnig, Vienna, circa 1805-10 and Johann Tröndlin, Leipzig, 1830. Both have been expertly maintained and preserved by the Frederick Historic Piano Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. All works except the Three Marches and the Great Fugue are performed on the Katholnig, reserving the Tröndlin for the two largest works. The dynamic range coaxed out of both instruments is a testament to the abilities of Bryant and Rachmanov, who should also be commended for their absolute dead-on ensemble. I have sat shoulder-to-shoulder with another pianist at an 1860s square piano (once played by Brahms) and can only imagine the difficulties the earlier, smaller instruments would present. A telling picture in the booklet shows both men off at a slight angle to the center of the keyboard. The sound these instruments produce is different from a modern piano in the sonorities for each register (low, middle, and high). The highest notes sound much more akin to a plucked violin or even a marimba or xylophone, while the middle is closest to our modern home spinet pianos. The bass is, as expected, not as full and sonorous as a modern grand, but very clear and never muddy. At the loudest moments in the Marches you hear kind of a raspy twang that reminds you of the percussion that is often associated with marches—a truly unique effect.

It would be easy to label this entire release rarities. Of the five significant compositions by Beethoven, which account for more than half the total time, only one, the Grosse Fuge, has come my way for review in the past several years. The Variations on ‘Ich denke dein’ are listed as a world premiere recording. Beethoven notated the theme for soprano and piano four-hands. The Magic Flute pieces are quite enjoyable and the only thing I have ever heard by an early teacher of Beethoven, Christian Gottlob Neefe. Perhaps the most entertaining piece here is the Haydn Divertmento. Based on the familiar Harmonious Blacksmith theme, this two-movement work is a set of variations and a minuet. The variations, as the subtitle ‘Il Maestro e lo Scolare’ implies, exploits the master and student relationship. Never was there a master and student who could so accurately imitate each other as the two pianists here.

Whether you are an expert in the field of period instruments or just curious about their sound, you owe it to yourself to make this recording a part of your collection. The repertoire, performers, booklet notes, and recorded sound are all superb; and I plan to keep this one on my active listening stack for the foreseeable future.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, May 2011

A few months ago, Naxos released a recital of Beethoven’s earliest piano variations, which I thought in my review a fascinating look at the young composer’s evolution. Now we have an even more interesting angle on that same moment in music history. “Beethoven and His Teachers” skillfully mixes the young man’s early works for piano four-hands with those of his mentors. The “Grosse Fuge” is added as an uncommonly huge bonus.

The turn of the nineteenth century was a time when piano four-hands was a genre which amateurs eagerly played at home, and much of the music in the amateur repertoire would have been for them. Such is Christian Neefe’s arrangement of six numbers from Mozart’s Magic Flute: genial, not too far removed from the original songs, and making a wholly pleasant impression. Today we have the luxury of saying things like ‘I do miss Papageno’s voice in his unforgettable Act I aria,’ but the whole point of this music is that most households of Neefe’s time would never get to hear a Papageno. This arrangement is probably the closest they could come to his charming song. My only really important criticism of Neefe is that the selections are—Mozart’s order notwithstanding—in reverse order of interest, the last part the anti-climactic forty-five second “Klinget, Glöckchen, klinget”.

Two more teachers are represented here: Johann Albrechstberger, by a prelude and fugue receiving its first recording, and Joseph Haydn. That Albrechstberger is represented by a fugue is apt: he was Beethoven’s counterpoint teacher in Vienna. That he is represented by a fugue in B flat is especially apt: it is catchy and enjoyable, true, but it is also in the same key as the Grosse Fuge. The Haydn is the Divertimento in F—Il Maestro e lo Scolare, a fortuitous bit of programming if there ever was one. Il Maestro wrote this in 1766–7, although it would be merest conjecture to suggest that he ever played it with his most famous Scolare. If they did, they would have played vintage Haydn: witty, clever, only mildly taxing perhaps, emotional smooth sailing.

Into this context arrives the young Beethoven, whose works are interspersed throughout the album. As must be the performers’ intention, he does indeed strike the ear as both a logical descendant of his disc-mates and something intriguingly new. The sonata in D, Op. 6, is surely the most academic piece here, though it is nonetheless very pleasant, and exceedingly modest in its dimensions: two three-minute movements. An even earlier set of variations on a theme by Count Waldstein has an interesting tension between major and minor modes, thanks to Waldstein’s intriguing tune. This is nothing like the extraordinary Eroica variations of a few years later, but it has its own charms. As is usual in even these early works, Beethoven takes the theme on a circuitous journey; there’s a trademark fake ending or two thrown in as well. An interesting contrast here, parallel to the two B flat fugues on the album, is the fact that the Beethoven variations will necessarily be compared to the variations movement in the Haydn.

Beethoven’s Three Marches, Op 45 date from 1804, but they are cheery, good-natured little marches—domestic tunes rather than military calls. CD 2 will surprise you if you haven’t looked too closely at the notes, for it begins with the big, appealing voice of soprano Maria Ferrante, singing a tune called “Ich denke dein” to sensitive accompaniment. The pianists then get to play variations of the tune while Ferrante listens, presumably. The last Beethoven contribution is the Grosse Fuge, sounding not too forbidding on this instrument, the voices very clear in this transcription, the performers very well-equipped with the necessary stamina.

Cullen Bryant and Dmitry Rachmanov are the able partners who communicate all this music with immediacy and who play some of the less thrilling bits, like the Neefe Mozart arrangements, with affection. I think it would be fair to say that this album offers a good idea of what one might have heard at the family pianoforte during the early 1800s, though the two instruments chosen here (by Caspar Katholnig, c. about 1810 and Johann Tröndlin, 1830) are not nearly the most appealing pianofortes I have heard. They aren’t particularly warm, compared to Graf or Pleyel models used by the likes of Michele Boegner and Paul Komen. The Katholnig has a tinkly action with lots of little noises. Still, the fortepiano is never a problem, and as an admirer of the instrument I don’t mind at all.

A few of the individual works have been played elsewhere, though not as much as you think: the Haydn divertimento is currently available on just two discs, this one and an earlier Naxos release with JenÅ‘ Jandó and Zsuzsa Kollár. Jörg Demus and Norman Shetler have done the Grosse Fuge arrangement for Deutsche Grammophon’s complete edition, and all the other Beethoven pieces have appeared on a Praga collection of his piano four-hands music. I confess to no familiarity with the competition, but they certainly cannot claim a program as interesting as this, or a booklet essay explaining the project with such clarity and scholarship.

So this is another intriguing, informative Beethoven album from Naxos. My only gripe is that the two-disc set adds up to barely more playing time than one full CD. At most online retailers, this is taken into account by charging only a bit more than the standard Naxos one-disc price—though Amazon have, at time of writing, got it in their heads that this is worth twice as much as even that. The sound, from a small church, is good to the piano if a bit close, but Ferrante’s brief contribution is boomy and there is a pronounced echo of all her words. Regardless, if you’re a Beethoven aficionado, you’ll very much want to hear this. It sheds a fascinating light on the maestros and lo scolare.

Patsy Morita, April 2011

This recording by Cullan Bryant and Dmitry Rachmanov gives fans of piano duet music the chance to hear a couple of rarities, plus Beethoven’s duets on period instruments. Beethoven and His Teachers mixes the works of Beethoven with pieces by three men known to have taught the great master at some point. Christian Gottlob Neefe was an organist and opera conductor mostly known for being Beethoven’s first significant composition teacher, but he also made piano arrangements of and prepared vocal-piano scores for Mozart’s opera music. His Six Easy Pieces from Die Zauberflöte are quite charming and capture several of the most famous melodies. Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, a friend of the Haydns, taught Beethoven harmony and counterpoint. Albrechtsberger’s Prelude and Fugue is a Classical-era take on the Baroque form, but it still uses a few of the ornamental and fantasia traits of the earlier period. Haydn’s Il Maestro e lo Scolare, well-known to duet students, but rarely recorded, is performed by Bryant and Rachmanov quite winningly, both acting as equal partners in agreeable imitation throughout the variations. Among the highlights of Beethoven’s duets are the duo’s reading of the Waldstein Variations, WoO 67, and the Variations on Ich denke dein, WoO 74, for which they are joined by Maria Ferrante, who sings the theme of the work. The inclusion of Beethoven’s own transcription of the Grosse Fuge is of interest because of the use of the historical instrument, but, even as well as Bryant and Rachmanov play it, it doesn’t quite live up to the effectiveness of the string quartet version. Overall, however, this recording is a great choice for those looking for original instrument performances of this repertoire.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

Two discs packaged as ‘Beethoven and his Teachers’ are performed on ‘early 19th century pianos from the Frederick Historic Piano Collection’. That tantalising snippet of information is, to some extent, expanded upon in the booklet, but those interested in such instruments will find it disappointingly brief. The works were all composed for four hands at one piano, the booklet relating the history of the young Beethoven whose formative years were spent as a piano student of Christian Gottlob Neefe, the court organist. Aged seventeen he left for Vienna where he studied with Haydn, the rather turbulent relationship between teacher and pupil at times sending him to Schenk, Albrechtsberger and Salieri. The pair of discs set out to offer little known music by these loosely linked composers, three of the tracks claiming ‘world premier recording’ status including Neefe’s disarmingly cheerful Six Easy Pieces on themes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and a real little gem in Albrechtsberger’s Prelude and Fugue in B flat. The major part is given to Beethoven, the music coming from the periphery of his output, the Three Marches being the type of composition any kapellmeister could put together on a wet afternoon. The real novelty comes at the end of second disc with the composer’s four hand piano transcription of the Grosse Fugue which formed the original last movement of the opus 130 String Quartet. If it sounds difficult for the string quartet, it here appears far more problematic. The disc also contains the Six Variations in D on the Air Ich denke dein, claiming a first recording status with Maria Ferrante singing the brief Air at the opening. I guess that making the notes register in fast passages on the venerable pianos was not easy, and at times the music sounds jerky to ears accustomed to hearing the works played on modern instruments. We are indebted to two American-based pianists, Cullan Bryant and Dmitry Rachmanov, for allowing us to experience them. Both discs are very short, the engineers capturing the sound in a friendly acoustic.

Nadia Lasserson
Piano Journal

To hear these two CDs of Beethoven’s complete music for four hands performed by the above artists [Bryant and Rachmanov], the listener would never have any inkling of the inner turmoil of Beethoven…

Cullan Bryant and Dmitry Rachmanov explore the dynamic ranges of all the works to the extreme limits of their instruments in exemplary and unbelievably dramatic fashion. It certainly gives the listener more than an inkling of Beethoven’s place in the development of the piano. The playing is of the finest tightly-knit ensemble with equanimity of phrasing, articulation and musicianship. The two performers pay as one unit with excellent, conversational aspects throughout. A real joy to hear, these CDs transport the listener to a sound-world of days gone by while retaining all of the technical verve, accomplishment and force of the present day. These CDs should be heard by all pianists—teachers, students and amateurs—for their great musical and historical value. © Piano Journal

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