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Before mechanical sound reproduction, large-scale music was often first experienced in piano transcriptions, some created by journeymen composers of talent. One such, Hugo Ulrich (1827-1872), born in Opole, Silesia, struggled financially, creating a piano trio (dedicated to his mentor, music editor Siegfried Dehn) and symphonies before resorting to transcriptions of symphonies and other works as subsistence labour. Of these faithful, yet pianistically rewarding works by Ulrich, Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia have chosen transcriptions – done in collaboration with Robert Wittmann, another now-forgotten composer – of three early Beethoven string quartets for piano four hands.

These transcriptions are based on a profound understanding of melody and the subtle progress of musical ideas, conveyed in a refined fashion by Ulrich and his partner. Likewise, Ho and Ahuvia prove to be uncommonly thoughtful and co-operative in these intimate efforts. The pianists themselves observe in CD booklet notes that the works contain Beethovenesque ‘bravura passagework, powerful symphonic cadences, [and] diabolical four-part fugues.’ These challenges they meet with abundant skill and self-effacing mastery. Ahuvia explains that he discovered these transcriptions when Leon Fleisher, his teacher at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, ordered his students to examine them as a way of revivifying Beethoven’s spirit at the keyboard beyond his piano sonatas. Indeed, this is a transcendent reminder of past four-handed glories, following the Prague Piano Duo’s vivid recording of the same composer’s Seventh Symphony in Ulrich’s transcription (on Praga SACD PRD/DSD 250219).

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing