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Hip, Hip, Hooray
on 2 April 2014
HIP - historically informed performance – has been infecting mainstream playing of classical and early-romantic orchestral works for some time. Roger Norrington and Simon Rattle are the best-known "crossover" conductors, regularly getting their brass players to use narrow-bore instruments, and their strings to limit vibrato. The aim is acoustic rather than strictly musical – but better balance generally makes for better tuning and better ensemble.
The infection is now spreading to chamber music through period keyboards. I was first aware of it through Viktoria Mullova's marvellous disc of the "Kreutzer" sonata with Kristian Bezuidenhout in 2010, but Bezuidenhout is a period specialist, so this was perhaps more of a meeting between different camps than a crossover. I don't think Mullova consciously adopted any period technique; she used gut strings, however.
Now we have "modern" players – who more so than Isabelle Faust? – making another Beethoven record with a period keyboard, a copy of an 1828 Graf piano. Faust and Melnikov have no previous form in the period world, but they have often been seen in the company of infectious characters. I saw them myself as long ago as 2001 at the Oxford Chamber Music Festival playing with the likes of Melvyn Tan and Pieter Wispelwey, and I gather that Melnikov has shared platforms (though not keyboards) with Andreas Staier.
I am fascinated to find these players, who five years ago produced an extremely successful recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas using a Steinway, should now switch to a fortepiano to perform middle-period Beethoven Piano Trios. Myself I love the noise of the Graf, so much varied and subtle than the relentless brightness of 20th Century pianos, but I guess that what persuaded Melnikov was its appropriateness for Beethoven's very thick left-hand writing in the "Archduke". A good player on a modern instrument will try to underplay it while not seeming to do so, but even the best of them – say, Susan Tomes in the Florestan Trio recording – cannot prevent the result sounding rather muddy, if not actually sepulchral. With the Graf these problems vanish. Its bass end is light and dry enough to allow the player to lay into the instrument without drowning out his colleagues.
I guess this is Melnikov's thinking. I have to guess because the album notes tell us nothing at all about the players' intentions, nor about their performance practice, beyond naming the instruments they use. I continue to guess, therefore, when I say that Faust and Queyras use gut strings – they launch the first track like a viol consort, which is perhaps a declaration of a kind – but play at A440 in what sounds like equal temperament, or something close to it. Perhaps one or more of them has perfect (modern) pitch, which can make playing at low pitch rather tiresome. The sound they produce is strong, warm, lively and well-balanced, and they get an excellent recording in the same Berlin studio which produced their Beethoven Violin Sonatas.
Of course the quality of their performance is what counts, but with these players one can expect excellence and seldom be disappointed. Faust's basic sound is not very different from her Sonata recording, perhaps softened a little by gut, but her playing here is less edgy – in the Sonatas she was often resolutely uncompromising in attack. Queyras, who does have period credentials, matches her decisive approach and her power. Melnikov as usual is intelligent, subtle and very accurate, with just the odd rolled chord for expressive purpose. Their interpretation is conventional in the best sense – of not striving to be "different" – and what strikes one most is that they provide a strong sense of momentum, in both slower and faster music, without any sense of rush. Part of this is an awareness of dance rhythms – I have never before heard quite so much of the waltz and the polonaise in the "Archduke", for example.
There are very many fine recordings of the "Archduke", though fewer of Op. 70.2, a splendid piece; comparisons are pointless. This version sounds wonderful and is worth anyone's attention. Finding it – thanks to previous Amazon reviewers – led me to investigate two other recent "crossover" albums from Faust and Melnikov which I am enjoying.
A note of caution. Do not confuse this "crossover" approach with actual historically informed performance. Such a thing in this case would require an appropriate keyboard (the Graf design is 20 years too late - pianos were changing constantly in the early 19th century) at a lower pitch, with tempered tuning; also the string players would have to use appropriate bows and modify their bowing, and probably even fingering, in the light of contemporary tutors. The results of such purism take some getting used to. An example would be the Hiro Kurosaki & Linda Nicholson's recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas. I do not much like the noise they make, but it is without doubt a reproduction of Beethoven's sound-world (when he still had one). Other period specialists can be more pragmatic. Andreas Staier, for instance, also uses a too-late piano on his disc of Beethoven Piano Trios (again with Queyras) which is probably the true begetter of this recording. Staier, however, does not hesitate to use all the stops on his instruments (he even puts bangs and whistles into his "Diabelli" Variations!) while Melnikov steers primly clear (I cannot even hear the "una corda" effect) perhaps afraid of not being taken seriously. He deserves congratulation nevertheless for having completely mastered his Graf, which is a very different beast from a Steinway. Perhaps he will loosen up in future "crossover" projects, of which I hope we shall hear many. I would also like to hear more from Mullova and Bezuidenhout. There is much to be said for such intelligent cross-fertilisation between performance fields.