Friday, February 18, 2011

Schumann in the Old Style

Robert Schumann: Works for the Pedal Piano
Martin Schmeding
ARS 38 011 (2006)


In all this piano discussion, I wrote to a friend this past week expressing my surprise that piano tone across a broad spectrum of builders (and across a broad spectrum of instrument prices) was remarkably uniform. His response, very sensibly, is that--apart from the organ--what other established classical instrument enables you to determine its manufacturer by sound alone? (And even in the case of the organ this is very tenuous.) All instruments--violin, flute, oboe, saxophone, xylophone, guitar--have evolved to occupy a particular point in sonic space, and for the most part instrument builders attempt to conform to the sonic standard.

But I maintain that my question is not altogether nonsensical. If, for example, an extraordinary 12' piano sounds indistinguishable from a standard 9' concert grand, what is the impetus to build it? In all instruments we must have an interior sense of the sonic ideal from which contemporary instruments fall short; otherwise, who would bother to be an instrument builder at all?

After falling in love with Schumann's works for pedal piano in Marco Bruson's recording on the remarkable Doppio Borgato, I went in search for other similar things, and ran across this complete survey of Schumann's pedal piano works by Martin Schmeding, Professor of Organ and Church Music at the Freiburg Hochschule for Music. In addition to the Op. 56 Etudes and the Op. 58 Scenes recorded by Bruson, Professor Schmeding also includes the six Op. 60 Fugues on BACH (pieces, again, familiar to most lovers of organ music).

Professor Schmeding is superb here and his survey of these works has the ring of authority. He captures the little fleeting moods of these pieces wonderfully, giving us a sense of what must have seemed amazingly fresh and alive in Schumann's time.

But I again find the instrument itself upstages. Professor Schmeding adds to the sense of authenticity here by playing a Pleyel grand piano from about 1840 (similar to Chopin's final instrument), mated to a Pleyel pedal instrument from c. 1890. So like the Doppio Borgato this Pleyel instrument is two separate entities, a grand piano sitting atop a distinct instrument for the feet.

This Pleyel instrument gives the lie to my contention that piano tone is eternally set, reminding us that the piano is still, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly recent phenomenon (something easy to lose sight of when electronics have overwhelmed the music world in the past three decades). 1840 is not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but this Pleyel instrument, while still unquestionably a piano, sounds almost as much like a pianoforte of Mozart or Haydn's time as it does a modern Steinway. (And when we look at the Pleyel compared to my own 75-year old Chickering, which DOES sound much like a modern Steinway, we realize that this change occurred in the short 90-plus years between 1840 and 1934.)

As is typical with iTunes, there is but a single cover photo and no supporting text, but even from that photo one can see some obvious differences between the Pleyel and a modern concert grand. The scale is obviously smaller and slighter, with the instrument being roughly 7' in length and not nearly as heavily-built as a modern grand. The Pleyel is straight-strung (with no harmonic-enhancing cross-stringing of the bottom two octaves across the strings of the rest of the instrument). A metal frame is visible in the Pleyel, but it's a considerably slighter affair than that of a modern grand.

The result of these technical things is an instrument with notably less power and sustain than a modern grand piano, especially when played aggressively. Even a modern piano is distinguished by having a strong attack followed by a reduced sustain and a decay that gets shorter and shorter as the notes rise in the upper register. The Pleyel seems to exaggerate each of these characteristics, being more attack and less sustain than we're used to. And none of the notes here sustains like a modern grand. In all, it's just a more intimate, less grand sound than a modern instrument.

It's hard to discern much detail about the pedal instrument from the photos. It does not appear to extend its strings beneath the piano in the manner of the Doppio Borgato, but rather has everything contained in a square box centered beneath the player's bench and the piano keyboard. This leaves little space for strings of any length, and not surprisingly the Pleyel's pedal tones have a fraction of the Borgato's power and sustain. My sense is that this pedal instrument was intended as a practice device for organists rather than as a concert instrument (as the Doppio Borgato obviously is).

Even if my ear has its preference, there doesn't need to be a value judgment in this: it's simply what was done at the time the Pleyel was built, and the instrument's tone is remarkable in its own way. But it's a reminder that the "ideal" of piano tone was as yet not determined, or certainly not yet realized when the Pleyel was built. This is the state of the art of the time, but that boundary was still in motion. The instrument is certainly capable of a singing tone, particularly in quieter passages, but the room for improvement was evident to all and the improvements came.

What's interesting to me is where we might go from here.

As for this recording, I give it top marks. A good clean, quiet recording of a fascinating instrument with brilliant content. A solid home run.

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