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Whether it’s in his role as pianist or conductor, András Schiff brings a distinctively devotional sensibility to his musicianship. So it’s no surprise that the Hungarian artist prefaces his latest release on ECM with an engaging essay titled ‘Confessions of a Convert’ – the conversion in question involving his recent enthusiasm for performing Schubert on a period fortepiano, having critiqued and even ridiculed the zealots of historically informed performance in former times. ‘Playing on fortepianos – and on clavichords – should be compulsory for all pianists,’ he now declares.

In fact Schiff had been testing the waters for some time, playing Mozart’s fortepiano in the late 1980s in Salzburg (‘a life-changing experience’) and eventually acquiring an echt Viennese fortepiano built circa 1820 by Franz Brodmann (whose brother would train a certain Ignaz Bösendorfer).

Lovingly restored in the 1960s, this six-octave instrument features no fewer than four pedals: a soft pedal able to elicit a harp-like delicacy; a bassoon pedal which lends the bass a crisp buzz; a pedal to mute the sound by means of cloth pieces inserted between hammer and strings (Schiff refers to this as the Brodmann’s ‘secret weapon’); and a sustaining pedal. 

Schiff made these recordings in the Kammermusiksaal H J Abs in the Beethoven House in Bonn, and ECM’s first-class engineering admirably captures the instrument’s warm reverber ance in this space. Indeed, as Schiff points out, the prime advantages of performing with the Brodmann are easily lost in the modern large concert hall. 

Quite apart from which camp one tends to favour in regard to period performance, the result is replete with revelations for Schubertians. Schiff’s programme wisely juxtaposes each of the two big sonatas here with miniatures which illuminate the introspective qualities of the former – the whole culminating in a profoundly engaging account of the final Sonata in B-flat D960.

Schiff gives the impression of having reconsidered every detail of these scores, fired by the dynamic contrasts as well as the rich spectrum of timbral distinctions his Brodmann allows him to articulate. One needn’t be a synæsthete of the order of Olivier Messiaen to savour the colour combinations Schiff evokes in the opening, bardic chords of the G major Sonata D894 or the tinge of bottomless pathos he brings to the Andante Sostenuto of D960. The paradox is that, with its smaller, more delicate, but non- homogeneous sound, Schiff’s fortepiano amplifies the emotional effect of Schubert’s contrasts – and opens up a new dimension for contemporary listeners.

THOMAS MAY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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