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Mozart am Stein Vis-à-vis

Modulating Prelude KV 284a
Sonata in B Flat Major KV 358
Modulating Prelude KV deest
Fragment of Prelude KV 624 (626a)
6 Vars in F Major on the aria “Salve tu, Domine” (Paisiello) KV 398 (416e)
Prelude (Fantasie) and Fugue in C Major KV 394 (383a)
Sonata in D Major KV 381 (123a)
6 German Dances KV 509 (transc by Staier/Schornsheim)

Andreas Staier & Christine Schornsheim (Stein vis-à-vis harpsichord/piano, 1777)

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901941

From the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona, this very large keyboard instrument is here restored and recorded for the first time. 

I wasn’t aware of this instrument before the disc arrived and what a fascinating beast it is! 

At one end is a fortepiano with bare wooden hammers (itself a revelation, owing more to the earlier keyed dulcimer and pantalon) and a moderator – a strip of cloth that the hammers strike through to imitate covered hammers.  At the other end is a three-manual harpsichord, no less, with a 16 foot and three 8 foot registers.  As Michael Latcham’s notes in the CD booklet make clear, “it contains the earliest surviving piano by Stein…[and] is the only piece of evidence for the sort of piano to which Mozart was then referring [in a 1777 letter to his father]”.  This makes any such recording of the instrument as vital, but to be in the hands of two such experts as we have here creates a wonderful experience.

The recording has been designed to be listened straight through: the key sequences are brilliantly managed through their use of (two-player arrangements of) modulating preludes and even an improvisation.  The three larger works are the sonatas for four hands in B flat and D majors and the 6 German Dances, here transcribed specially for the harpsichord/piano combination from the orchestral score Mozart made in 1787.  Every single sonic combination has been wrung from the instrument and on the recorded evidence they are all successful.  The un-moderated tone of the piano put me in mind of a softer-edged version of Mikolos Spanyi’s recordings on his Tangent-piano (on Bis) and when moderated, the tone becomes velvety and magical – the end of the Improvisation is a fine example.  I was quite surprised by the soft-voicing of the individual registers of the harpsichord but when coupled up, the effect was still magisterial.  The piano sings beautifully over the harpsichord accompaniment, as in the slow movements of the sonatas.

As one would expect the playing is fluent and virtuosic in the extreme – occasionally too much so for my taste.  The speed of the first movements of both sonatas makes little sense to me with no time allowed for space or shape, unless forced in artificially.  The last movement of the D major sonata I just found unrhythmic, which is such a shame!  The music may not have the sophistication of, say, the F major four-hand sonata, but there is real charm in the writing and an elegance that gets lost at excessive speed.  Excitement is heightened, in my experience, by allowing the shapes of the smallest notes (here semiquavers) to dictate the tempo.  However, the slow movements of both sonatas are beautifully done with the pianist (the liner notes don’t say who) playing a legato line that I find irresistible and great degrees of colour and shading.   The preludes and improvisation are fluid and improvisatory with no holds barred on the arpeggiated chords.

The recorded sound is good – I enjoyed it over speakers and on headphones.  It is close (occasional non-intrusive breathing from the performers proves that they are alive I find!) but the listener doesn’t have their head directly under the not-inconsiderable lid.

Steven Devine