Friday, May 12, 2017

Staier and Melnikov Present Four-Hand Schubert with Intimacy and Wit

Today PIAS released the latest harmonia mundi recording featuring the pianist Andreas Staier. Like the most recent release of Staier performances almost exactly six months ago, this is not a solo album; but it is another album devoted entirely to the music of Franz Schubert. That earlier release presented Schubert’s two piano trios with Staier joined by violinist Daniel Sepec and cellist Roel Dieltiens. This time Staier is joined by another harmonia mundi pianist, Alexander Melnikov, for a generous offering of pieces Schubert composed for four hands on a single keyboard.

Where Staier is concerned, his choice of instrument is as important as the repertoire. He plays a fortepiano made by Christopher Clarke in 1996 using an instrument made by Conrad Graf in Vienna in 1827 as a model. As P. T. Barnum might say, this is no ordinary fortepiano; and I must confess that I have a bit of history in conjunction with Graf’s approach to design that deserves a brief digression.

Back in the Seventies, when pianists and recording companies were just beginning to take an interest in the fortepiano, Paul Badura-Skoda give a lecture-performance in Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, providing the audience with a general introduction to the instrument. The instrument he brought with him had the same Graf design that has appealed to Staier. Towards the end of his program, Badura-Skoda mentioned, almost in passing, that Graf had supplemented the keyboard structure with a variety of percussion “special effects.” These effects were then demonstrated colorfully (not to mention hilariously) with a performance of the concluding “Rondo alla turca” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 piano sonata in A major.

As far as I can tell, Staier has been exploiting this feature of his instrument for as long as he has been recording with it. In his most recent past recording, he used those effects to highlight the rustic qualities in the trio section of the third (Scherzando) movement of the D. 929 trio in E-flat major. On this new recording Staier pulls out all the stops (so to speak) in performing the two march selections on the album: the third (in B minor) of the six Grandes Marches in D. 819 and the first (in C major) of the two D. 886 Marches caractéristiques. Staier never overplays his hand with these effects; but he definitely crosses the threshold from bemused chuckling to overt belly-laughs.

There is, of course, a serious side to this album as well. This is best represented by the D. 940 fantasia in F minor. The track listing marks off the division of this single-movement composition into four sections. These sections are usually performed seamlessly, but there is one oddity about the transition to the second section. In the Breitkopf & Härtel edition of Schubert’s complete works (much of which has been reprinted by Dover Publications), the first section ends with repeated statements of a F major chord that changes abruptly to an F-sharp minor chord, which then establishes the tonality of the second section. However, on this recording, the first section concludes with a single F major chord, followed by a short pause, after which the second section bursts on the scene. The booklet notes by Karl Böhmer (translated into English by Charles Johnston) say nothing about this departure from the “Breitkopf standard,” which may be based on some recently discovered manuscript. However, those familiar with D. 940 through either playing or listening should be alerted to this difference.

The other major works on the album are the D. 813 set if variations in A-flat major and the D. 951 rondo in A major. That latter happens to a personal favorite, since it accommodates the amateur’s hands relatively comfortably. (Nevertheless, I have had many happy, if struggling, hours occupied with the D. 940 fantasia with a variety of different friends and at least one stranger!) This raises the point that this was, in all probability, music intended for playing, rather than listening. Those of us who play tend to be eager to listen to how others do it; and, speaking from my own experiences and frustrations, listening to Staier and Melnikov was a sheer delight. Those who lack the hands-on experience may well draw more pleasure from Staier’s explorations of his instrument’s special effects! Nevertheless, every one of the selections on this new album definitely has something to draw the attention of the serious listener.

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