Schubert on Fortepiano by Andras Schiff – not for beginners

In his comment on my initial Diabelli thread, Jud asked about the new Schubert recording of Schiff on ECM.

0002894811577_600Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought it blindly (instead of streaming it first as I would have done usually), Actually, I’m glad I did.

Andreas Schiff uses the same 1820’s Franz Brodmann fortepiano he also uses on the Diabelli’s second “disc”. This is not very surprising given that he actually owns this since 2010. (It is usually on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn).

When listening to Fortepiano, the differences are much larger than with modern grand pianos. Sure, a Bösendorfer has a different house sound to a Steinway, and a trained pianists will be able to tell one Steinway from the other (witness the fascinating movie Pianomania if you want to know more), but that said, for most of us mere mortals all sound pretty nice.

In the early 1800s we were far from this homogeneity. This is important to know before you purchase a fortepiano recording, as they really can sound quite differently, and you may not like all sounds.

There are some I cannot listen to for a long time (e.g. Malcolm Bilson’s recording of the Mozart piano concertos), while I love the sound of others (e.g. Roland Brautigam playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1820 fortepiano in his amazing Beethoven piano music cycle).

Brodmann Hammerflügel

The sound of this particular Brodmann Hammerflügel I very much like on the Diabelli, due to their very intellectual nature. It takes much more getting used on the romantic beauty of Schubert (I know Schubert was borderline between classical and romantic period, but to me is is clearly in the latter), especially if your current reference is this:

uchida schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

The sheer beauty of Uchida on Schubert is just outstanding. Well, the sound of the Brodmann is anything but beautiful at first ear.

Funnily enough, Andras Schiff himself is on record (from the 1990s) dreading somebody playing Schubert on a fortepiano. He has obviously by now made up his mind and admitted he was wrong.

And to be fair, he was. There is so much to discover here, not only you because you hear the music “as Schubert would have played it” (and unlike Beethoven, at least he wasn’t deaf), but the colors, the nuances, everything is different. This is NOT a recording to lay back and enjoy, this is a journey into the music.

Real highlights to me are the Moments Musicaux (revealing their true Viennese charm) and the amazing sonata D960.

If you don’t have any Schubert piano works yet, don’t buy this as a first album. Go for Uchida, Brendel, Lewis, etc (or the recently released outstandin album by David Fray).

And please do, as Schubert (to my ears) wasn’t great in the symphonic genre, but has done marvelous work both on the piano and in the chamber music fields (more on this later).

But if you know what you’re getting, check this out, you won’t disappointed. And obviously as usual ECM is very well recorded.

Overall rating: 4 stars

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations – an acquired taste?

Beethoven. You could be saying that I’m really trying to tick off the famous “great Three B’s” first. How creative of me.

Well, while the general consensus doesn’t get everything right, there’s a reason why the three B’s are so important. And in any case, I probably wasn’t mean to be a rebel to tell the establishment they got it all wrong.

Back to Ludwig van. I’ve been a fan, like forever (excuse me for sounding like an over-excited American teenager). The symphonies I can never never never get bored with (except, as already mentioned before, the ninth, which somehow escapes me). His piano sonatas are amazing and cover his entire spectrum from something that sounds like young Haydn (and were not surprisingly his op. 2) to the extremely well-known sonatas in his middle period, many of which got their reputation due to their nickname (from Mondschein to Apassionata), to the late works (op. 109 to 111) which are anything but immediately accessible for the average listener, including me.

But let me talk about the Diabelli variations today. They are probably not as well known as their famous variations older brother (Bach’s Goldberg), but still are seen by most experts as an absolutely masterpiece. And let me admit: until recently, I just never “got” them. I tried again and again with the small handful of versions I had (including Brendel nevertheless), and nothing ever stuck, I just never really fell in love.

Until recently. Two and a half versions (I was tempted to do a Charlie Sheen joke here) of this, and very repeated listening, changed my mind.

Andras Schiff

The first version, is the one I kind of called 1.5. To be fair, they are two, but both played by the same pianist and on the same album. Andras Schiff, the great Hungarian pianist, recorded the Diabelli-Variations twice, for ECM (yes, I know, ECM again...)

Disc 1 (if in the times of computer audio it still makes sense to speak of discs) contains a recording on a 1921 Bechstein grand. This version really opened my eyes for the beauty of the Diabellis.

Disc 2 contains the same piece again, played this time on a fortepiano from Beethoven’s time. I recently started enjoying the fortepiano more and more (thanks to great pianists like Roland Brautigam, Kristian Bezuidenhout), as not only “it sounds like Beethoven would have heard it” (if he wouldn’t have been deaf by the time this was composed), but also it gives a totally different degree of transparency.

Andreas Staier

But when we get to the fortepiano, there is another version I prefer even more, from an artist with pretty much the same first name: Andreas Staier on Harmonia Mundi. Andreas Staier is a German fortepiano and harpsichord player, and I have yet to find any recording of him that seriously disappointed me.

This has been recommended by several people I usually trust well. But because of my scepticism until recently regarding the Diabellis, I only got this version some weeks ago. What a mistake. It is just amazing.

Luckily for us, both versions are also very well recorded (you can usually trust both ECM and Harmonia Mundi to get that part right), and are available as high-res downloads.

Check both out, you won’t be disappointed.

P.S: I just discovered this interesting article from Nick van Bloss describing his recording the Diabellis on Gramophone’s blog. I haven’t checked out his album yet, but his description and approach are certainly worth reading.

P.P.S. If you prefer a modern piano reading, read my addendum I just published.

P.P.P.S. Gramophone also likes Staier, but has yet another alternative

P.P.P.P.S: Igor Levit has recorded another outstanding alternative on a modern piano.

Please let me know if I missed any good version out there, I can certainly live with more!