Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie Op.103 D940, F minor [19:24]
Ländler D814 [3:16]
Marche Caractéristique D886 No. 1, C major [6:18]
Variations on an original theme Op.35 D813, A flat major [21:38]
Grande Marche Op.40 No. 3 D819, B minor [7:24]
Polonaise Op.61 N° 1 D824, D minor [4:22]
Rondo Op.107 D951, A major [12:30]
Andreas Staier & Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano Graf by Christopher Clarke)
rec. March 2015, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902227 [73:02]
The idea behind this disc is a wonderful one. Schubert’s piano duets (four hands, one keyboard) are perhaps his most intimate music-making. There can be few more lovely expressions of friendship, and the notes for this disc remind us of just how much Schubert loved to play them with his closest companions. Indeed, much of the music is wonderful. The great F minor Fantasie plumbs some of Schubert’s darkest depths, and the Opus 35 Variations are a real masterpiece, the composer repeatedly surprising us with what he can achieve through amazingly compact musical means.
The main problem for me, however, is the choice of instrument. Staier and Melnikov share the keyboard of a fortepiano, which is an instrument I just struggle to love. I knew that before I came to this disc, of course, and I listened to it genuinely wanting to be won over. Andreas Staier is, after all, one of the world’s most renowned exponents of the fortepiano, and it’s game of Alexander Melnikov to put himself out of his comfort zone and join him on what is far from his usual territory. Both musicians get full marks, then, and they play just about as sensitively as you could imagine; but to me the range of expression is so limited when compared with a modern piano, and the keys have an unwelcome hard edge to them that I just couldn’t warm to. One reviewer of this disc described the music as having a “percussive clack”, and I sympathise with that. Furthermore, the booklet quotes Schubert’s own scepticism of contemporary pianists who have “the confounded pecking style… which delights neither the ear nor the mind.” I fear that might inadvertently be applied to the sound here.
The different styles and moods of the F Minor Fantasy aren’t sufficiently distinguished for my taste. The playful Scherzo section works best, but there is a limit to how far the music can really breathe, and even to the range of the keyboard, which sounds uncomfortably tinkly at the very top. One virtue of the instrument is that it has the built-in percussion of a drum and cymbal, which lends the Marche charactéristique an authenticity you wouldn’t get from a modern Steinway. Beyond that, however, I struggled to find much of an argument beyond the historical for using the Graf that they do.
Having said that, I did enjoy the Variations on an Original Theme, which was beautifully structured and delicately played, with more light and shade than you get elsewhere, and the Grande Marche and Polonaise do have a bit more swagger when played on a fortepiano.
On the whole, though, I wasn’t convinced. The only fortepiano playing I’ve enjoyed came from Kristian Bezuidenhout in his song recital with Mark Padmore (review), but I then became even more disillusioned when I heard Bezuidenhout live (review). I think, therefore, that I’ll be coming back to this disc only rarely.
All of which leaves me with something of a dilemma: do I listen to more fortepiano discs to try and overcome my aversion to the instrument and see what other people value in it; or do I admit that I have a tin ear for it, give up, and stop being rude about it?...