Andreas Staier

Schubert: Impromptus Op. 142; Sonate Op. 78

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German historical keyboardist Andreas Staier began his career as a harpsichordist, but has moved forward chronologically into repertory using various instruments. Often he tries to match the instrument very closely to the one that might have been used when a work was composed or originally performed; the copy, played here, of an 1827 instrument by the Viennese maker Graf could have come straight out of the last stages of Schubert's life. The case for authentic instruments with Schubert is less compelling than it is for Baroque music or even for Haydn and Mozart; the Graf piano doesn't presuppose, in a way that a fortepiano of the 1780s does, structural possibilities fundamentally different from those of a modern grand, and it's easy to imagine that Schubert would have been delighted with the rapid technological advances that came along in pianos of the next few decades. Nevertheless, Staier succeeds, as he so often does, in linking musical developments to technological ones. The program pairs the Piano Sonata in G major, D. 894, with the Four Impromptus, D. 935, a sonata with strong fantasy characteristics (and that was even given the nickname of "fantasy") and a set of four short pieces that together suggest a sonata. Sample the central section of the minuet of the G major sonata, where Schubert's ecstatic use of the upper register results in an unfamiliar, brushy sound. You might or might not find it as pleasing as the sparkling tones of a modern piano. Yet in many passages you gain a new awareness of how Schubert was experimenting with timbre itself. He was writing fantasy sonatas and sonata-like impromptu sets because the new instruments made such things possible. The opening movement of the sonata, which builds a relaxed, expansive structure out of an economical set of motives, reveals in Staier's hands an amazing variety of ways to combine timbre with thematic material. The movement seems to pulsate uncannily with a five-note motive that would mostly reside in the background on a newer piano. The upper-register passages are also worth sampling to determine whether you'll be bothered by the close-up microphone placement that captures the subtleties of the piano's attacks, but also picks up a good deal of performer breath noise. Highly recommended for those interested in historical keyboard playing. Notes are in German, French, and English.

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