Site review by ramesh May 13, 2005
|Sonata in A minor, K 310
Sonata in A, K 331/300i
Sonata in D, K 576
Rondo in A minor, K 511
2 pieces, K 399/385i
Gigue, K 574
First the good news. This was recorded in situ at an Italian residence, the Villa di Ninfa, which was the locus of an artistic salon in the nineteenth century; I've just summarised three pages of liner notes. Recorded over 3 days in 2001, but only released last year ( why? ). Audiophile street cred is sealed by 5 channel DSD with dCS convertors, valve microphones, garnished by rarefied cabling.
The piano is an 1884 Bechstein. Charles Rosen ( author of the 'Classical Style' 1971 and the 'Romantic Generation' 1995 ) claims, "the excellent 1884 Bechstein still preserved there…has a long decay of sound that enables one to achieve a fine cantabile, and it also possesses a balance of treble and bass particularly suitable for Mozart, and on which one can achieve power without the coarseness of so many more modern instruments." The booklet states the Bechstein was gifted by Liszt himself, and delivered new to the villa in 1884. Apparently its restoration prior to this recording was performed in such a manner as to "enhance the qualities of brilliancy, warmth and expressiveness, while avoiding the mistake of concealing those technical faults which were an intrinsic part of the instrument". The curious reader will search this booklet in vain for a full photo of this Lisztian bequest, though space has been found for two full page portraits of the artist as a craggy old geezer ( one including the keyboard ), and further photo spreads for the current owner in her gardens, plus her sundry ancestors. Nevertheless Professor Rosen's two eloquently compressed pages on the Mozart sonatas are as illuminating as his past scholarship, and far more succinct.
The booklet implies this is the type of domestic keyboard sound one would expect in a nineteenth century soirée. For an example of an older piano, I compared it to the recording Michelangeli made for DG of the Brahms ballades, on a German grand circa WW1. The latter has a mellow but nonetheless rich treble with a slightly dampened bass. The Bechstein here sounds nothing like it. If anything, it is more reminiscent of the Pleyel instruments Chopin used. There is a not unpleasant twangy leading edge, a relative lack of rich overtones in the body of the note, and a relatively rapid decay of the trailing edge; like a cross between a modern Bösendorfer and a fortepiano. The engineers have recorded it magnificently, at exactly the right distance from the instrument, avoiding the overpercussiveness which afflicted so many of Deutsche Grammophon's solo piano CDs of the early Eighties. The piano tone is relatively etiolated yet mellow. I cannot reconcile the pianist's assertion of a 'long decay of sound' on this recoding.
The performances are actually passionate and robust. Rosen has selected three of Mozart's four greatest solo piano works, only K 457/475 is absent. As regards the A minor, played with a dogged intensity, sure, there aren't the subtleties of texture and rhythm displayed in Dinu Lipatti's versions on EMI, to say nothing of the equally remarkable Murray Perahia in 1991( Sony SK 48233). The exposition of the first movement is highly effective. Many pianists thump the first five notes, distorting the remainder of the phrase. Rosen persuasively inflects the 'sighing' of the succeeding phrases. However, the melodic line in the slow movement here sounds like a cat on a hot tin roof, or if you please, the cantabile is rendered like a clapped-out Fiat Bambina trundling down a heavily cobbled street. I suspect this ungainliness resides mainly in the keyboard mechanism, because I heard the pianist at about the recording date of this disc, and there were no technical shortcomings evident in the recital, though his polish was finer as recently as the 1994 CD included in his 'Romantic Generation' tome.
The piano doesn't suit the more ethereal passages in the opening movement of the A major, rendered with such finesse by Perahia on a contemporary Steinway. However, the tables are turned in the swagger of the 'rondo alla turca'. This movement, like the opening of the Waldstein sonata simply sounds more effective on a period instrument. The contrapuntal dexterity of K 576 and the minor pieces sounded the most convincing, justifying Rosen's championing of the textural clarity to be found in this historic instrument. The A major, D major and the great Rondo are played fractionally quicker than the usual run, probably abetted by the rapid decay of the notes. The long-arched melodic line of K511 is the least suited to this instrument, acutely so when one compares Rosen's recording to Uchida's Tokyo concert recording 1991. [ This was released by Philips apart from her studio integral cycle of the Mozart keyboard sonatas.] Uchida's performance of K 511 is the finest single Mozart movement she has recorded which I've heard, because of the intensity and vocal phrasing of the cantilena, which this piano cannot match.
I only recommend this to pianophiles, as a token of keyboard archaeology, but the commendation for this SACD for this audience isn't backhanded. It is a halfway house of what can be achieved on a fortepiano. Andreas Staier's SACD of Mozart works on Harmonia Mundi also has the gigue K 574, but the sound of Rosen's instrument is more seductive, as it is nearly a century more modern. If Liszt could make this piano sing, he truly was a magician.