The piano pédalier or pedal piano is something of a curiosity, though the Doppio Borgato firm still makes foot keyboards in a remarkable system which looks like another grand piano lying prone under your typical concert grand. The technique for playing such an instrument is similar to that of an organ, and this is why we have the distinguished organist Olivier Latry performing the repertoire on this disc. The actual piano used is an Érard from 1853, thought to be the one presented at the Paris exhibition, and used by Alkan until his death in 1888. Subsequently kept by Érard, it was donated to the Musée de la musique in 1971, and was restored to its current condition in 2009. The sound is somewhere between a modern grand piano and an early fortepiano, the bass of course beefed up by the pedals, and the upper registers having that tangy metallic quality which will be familiar to collectors of authentic instrument performances. The sustaining quality is less than a modern grand piano, and this results in a more ‘plinky’ sound and not much in the way of legato expressiveness. The sound is however not unpleasant, and it would be intriguing to hear it played by a pianist rather than an organist. I wouldn’t dare criticise Latry’s performances on a technical level, but his touch does seem to be rather on the firm side and I’m not convinced there are more subtle colours to be obtained at times.
Alexandre Boëly’s works are romantic versions of forms developed by earlier composers such as Bach, and a little later by Clementi in his Gradus ad Parnassum. These are rather earnest works which serve to get us accustomed to the sound of the instrument and to the virtuoso technique of the performer, but it has to be said they are rather on the dry and academic side. The interest here is in hearing such works on the piano rather than the organ, and there is a good deal for students to discover from these recordings. Franz Liszt’s remarkable Évocation à la Chapelle Sixtine has a more poetic character, throwing in quotations from Mozart and Allegri in an effort to create a spell of wonder comparable to Michelangelo’s ceilings. The softer dynamics in this piece create a character entirely different to most of the pieces elsewhere in this programme.
Robert Schumann’s Vier Skizzen explore poetic aspects of a different nature, closer to the world of introspection than of religious ecstasy. 1846 was a period in which Schumann’s stability was just beginning to teeter towards the madness which would claim his life 10 years later, but the strength of his creativity was very much in full flow. These pieces have plenty of the drive which is part of the character of his Piano Concerto of the previous year, and of his many of his other piano works and song accompaniments. The booklet notes point to a “rhythmic obsessiveness characteristic of a form of Schumannesque psychological isolation which in certain cases is not far removed from creative emptiness.” The names of Brahms and Schumann are forever linked in musical history as they are in the programming of this CD, and Brahms’ youthfully athletic Prélude et fugue applies the models of Bach to create a work of striking individuality and character. The prelude stretches the pedal keyboard more than most of the other pieces, creating the kind of rumbling depth we’ve all been hoping for from this recording.
Skilled pedal-piano proponent Charles-Valentin Alkan’s two Préludes display a depth of affinity with the instrument which is less evident in Boëly’s pieces, which to my mind are as good as interchangeable with the organ. Alkan’s pianistic effects join with an animated and individual bass part in Op.66/10, and Op.66/5 develops with orchestral expansiveness, the rich sonorities of the instrument explored to magnificent and surprising effect. Probably the most familiar piece here, Liszt’s Prélude et fugue sur B-A-C-H is however performed in its 1855 version, which is closer to a fantasia form in four sections rather than the more clearly defined re-working of the piece from 1870. This is a superbly dramatic piece to end this recital, pushing the boundaries of technique both in terms of composition and performance, and with a little of everything and a lot into which you can get your teeth.
This recording is more than a historical curiosity, but at the same time it will be of most interest to those interested in the revival of genuinely historical instruments and the music written for them. This is not really the kind of CD with which you can kick off your shoes and relax at the end of a hard day cleaning dusty organ pipes, but at the same time it shines a fascinating light on works written for the piano pédalier but previously only performable on the organ. The CD comes in a nicely presented gatefold package with useful booklet notes on the instrument and the music, and technical notes and photos which show its unique configuration.