Thursday, February 10, 2011

Doppio Good

Mirco Bruson Plays the Doppio Borgato Pedal Piano
Music of Schumann, Beethoven, Franck and Bach
Luigi Borgato, 2011


Here's another recording that springboards us into a discussion about technical matters. As mentioned in the previous post, my exploration of some of the more obscure corners of the piano industry has yielded several great finds. This is perhaps the most exciting.

Luigi Borgato is an Italian piano maker who, in addition to having made some innovations to the standard concert grand piano design, offers a production pedal piano, which he calls the Doppio Borgato (Double Borgato). He didn't invent the pedal piano concept (I've seen pictures of several improvised ones) but the Doppio Borgato is the only commercially-available pedal piano I've ever heard of. Of course it's a natural idea, following on from the pedal harpsichords which were known in Bach's day and which organists used as practice instruments. But it's an idea which also brings challenges. Neither the organ nor the harpsichord require a nuanced touch for any kind of dynamic control, while this expressive mechanism is the piano's whole raison d'etre. To require the feet to do something more delicate than a simple on / off is surely an additional complication for the player.

Wikipedia shows a couple historic versions of the pedal piano, most of which involve linkages from the pedals to their corresponding piano keys above. The other method is to build a separate instrument for the feet and stack the two one atop the other. The Doppio Borgato is of this latter type, with a standard concert grand piano sitting atop a second, dedicated 37-note piano for the feet. The "standard" piano is Borgato's L-282, an exquisite 9' grand of the regular 88 note compass. The single front leg has been moved slightly to accommodate the pedal instrument below, but it appears otherwise to follow the established pattern of concert grand pianos. I thought it ungainly-looking at first, but I'm changing my mind. It's certainly less elegant than the basic concert grand, but there's a mass and seriousness about the two instruments together that look to mean business. They certainly look to mean money: the Doppio Borgato is a whopping €260,750 complete.

Over the years I've wondered about what qualities would seem to be needed to make a pedal piano work, and a big question is whether one would want the feet to produce sound which differs in any particular from the hands, or if the two should be seamless. Of course, if the feet simply activate the corresponding notes of the piano above, the sound would only be distinguished by differences in quality of touch or phrasing. (With an organ the artist is easily able to choose between both options: use the same pipes as the hands or use a different registration). Most pedal harpsichords I've heard give the pedal instrument a bit of extra gravitas, which seems suitable. Maestro Borgato seems to have straddled this line very subtly. The pedal instrument of the Doppio Borgato played gently sounds indistinguishable from the keyboard above; but played with a bit more aggression the pedals acquire a hard, brassy quality that sounds powerful and very effectively underpins the instrument above. It's exactly the right balance, I think, but it doesn't minimize the challenge of getting the "touch" of the feet right; this change in timbre from piano to forte makes a careless movement of the feet more noticeable than it might otherwise be. Further, the pedals seem to have a very small range of motion--not unlike the inch or so that the piano keys move--and I wonder if that limited motion makes it more difficult to gauge the intensity of one's touch when using the feet? (I'd love to learn more about the technical aspects of the instrument; is the action different from the L-282 above? Are the strings and tensions in the pedal instrument the same as the L-282? And if anything differs, how was that difference arrived at?)

I'm surprised at how much music (that is, any at all) has been written for the pedal piano considering it's an instrument that basically does not exist in the wild. And to this repertoire can be added almost anything written for the organ--a huge body of music. The Italian pianist Mirco Bruson is entrusted with introducing the Doppio Borgato to us on this recording, and he has chosen superbly. Schumann wrote several cycles of pieces specifically for the pedal piano (they are always performed on the organ), and Bruson here gives us the Op. 56 Etudes and the Op. 58 Scenes. There is also a piece by Beethoven, Cesar Franck's Prelude, Fugue et Variation, and from Bach three chorale preludes and the famous c minor Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582. All these show the instrument off most flatteringly. I've always enjoyed the Schumann pieces, particularly the Op. 56 Etudes but they've never sounded so good as they do on this instrument. They're not as densely contrapuntal as, say, Bach's Trio Sonatas, but the canonic interplay of voices here is wonderfully inventive and Schumann's melodies are lovely.

Bruson's performance is letter-perfect. My earlier-stated concerns about the difficulty of judging one's touch with the pedal instrument stem at least partly from my having seen video of the great French organist Jean Guillou playing his own Doppio Borgato where some of Bach's more athletic pedal passages sound a bit uneven. I'm quite aware of Guillou's rare brilliance as an organist, which only reinforces the notion that playing this pedal instrument may not be a walk in the park. Mirco Bruson's recording here does not hint at any such issues, and the disc brilliantly demonstrates this interplay of tones between hands and feet. (As an aside, Jean Guillou made a recording in 2002 on Phillips of the Doppio Borgato which is unavailable in the US. I'm shocked at how absolutely it's unavailable--a Google search comes up with very little and even a search of Decca's own website turns up not a trace. I've managed to track it down on a European site, but the protection against an American getting his hands on the recording is remarkably effective--for what purpose I cannot imagine. I feel I must make it a mission to get my hands on that CD, and will try again next time I'm out of the country.)

(Jean Guillou at the Doppio Borgato)

This disc, and the Doppio Borgato particularly, makes for the most exciting addition to my music collection in a long time. I can hardly conceive of a more fascinating endeavor than to build and perfect an instrument like this one, and I would love to hear the whole of the organ literature recorded on it. Here's hoping for much more.

Highest recommendation.


David said...

There's also a fairly recent recording of the three Schumann cycles (op. 56, 58, 60) played on a pedal piano by Martin Schmeding. It's a hybrid SACD on the Ars Produktion label.


wunelle said...


So interesting you should mention that, as I bought the recording you mention almost simultaneously with the Bruson recording and have almost finished a review of it. I should have it posted today.

I confess that I like the music--a couple of the Etudes especially--but I LOVE the instrument, the Doppio Borgato. I'm quite entranced.


Let friends know that from 12 to 16 May in TORINO Italy, the Doppio Borgato will be at "Dimensione Musica" Salone del Libro di Torino Hall 1 - to be heard and played - for public

Borgato Pianos