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ANDRÁS SCHIFF – FRANZ SCHUBERT / ECM New Series 2425/26                                                                                                                      player

Schubert's music has an immediate impact. No one has expressed this more forcefully than Theodor Adorno in his early essay of 1928: 'Confronted with Schubert's music, tears fall from our eyes before the soul is even consulted. That is how solidly and unmetaphorically it affects us.' It would be wrong, however, to take this as a plea for sentimentality, allowing pianists to claim, as Ulrich Schreiber once put it, 'the right to lend the score a helping hand by improving it'. To avoid this dilemma, one thing above all is helpful, in addition to pianistic skill and aesthetic sensibilities: archival research. Not least of all this involves the questions of which instruments Schubert played upon, which surroundings his works were performed in, what social groupings they were conceived for and what sound-ideals this imposed on him.

The Hungarian pianist András Schiff has long been concerned with period performance practice. At first, however, the musical results of the research into authentic sound left him unconvinced. Since then his initial qualms, sparked by the dogmatism of the original practitioners and the poor state of many historical instruments, has virtually given way to a gusto for period instruments. A change of heart was prompted above all by his experience with Mozart's hammerklavier, which he was allowed to play in the composer's birth-house in Salzburg – 'at once a privilege and an unforgettable experience'. Only on this instrument, where Mozart probed the limits of the keyboard and the piano’s potential, does the revolutionary character of his music come fully to the fore.

Nor did Schiff play his spectacular double-recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on a modern Steinway. Instead he chose two earlier instruments: a hammerflügel from Beethoven's day, which gives full play to the composer's rich sonic universe, and an original Bechstein grand of 1921, with a sound-ideal virtually nonexistent today.

For the present recording of works by Franz Schubert, the pianist has again chosen a Viennese hammerflügel built by Franz Brodmann in 1820. Anyone listening to his interpretations will be surprised at the instrument's ability to bring out the gentle, wistful songfulness of Schubert's music, a quality far removed from Biedermeier sentimentality. Above all, the instrument is capable of rendering the huge range and myriad gradations of Schubert's dynamics down to the softest pianissimo. This is due in particular to the moderator pedal (a feature no longer found on today's instruments), which places a piece of cloth between the hammers and the strings, muting the attack and the sound in an almost mystical manner.

Indeed, the recordings on this instrument lack all false brilliance and any neutralising equilibration of the registers. We feel we are listening to Schubert for the first time, perhaps as he heard his own playing, with silvery high registers, a warm timbre in the mid-range and a dry, almost laconic bass. Most of all, the works, especially the highly popular Moments musicaux and Impromptus, benefit from an instrumental character defined more by rounded consonance than by the isolated note. Even the light folk-like inflection found, for example, in many passages of the G-major Sonata seems perfectly natural, not as if Schiff had to curtail the instrument’s fulsome sonority in order to accommodate unadorned expression.

Incidentally, the Brodmann instrument was formerly owned by the Austro-Hungarian imperial family. Charles I, the last emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, took it with him when he entered his Swiss exile in 1919. In 1965 it was carefully restored in Basel, and in 2010 it was purchased by András Schiff, who placed it on permanent loan to the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, of which he is an honorary member.

© Studio Svengali, August 2022
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