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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
The Complete works for pedal piano and orchestra
Suite concertante in A major (1886) [22:59]
Concerto for pedal piano in E flat major (1889) [19:47]
Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe (1885) [8:36]
Danse roumaine (1888) [4:32]
Roberto Prosseda (pedal piano)
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Howard Shelley
rec. October 2012, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano. Switzerland
HYPERION CDA 67975 [55:56]

The problem with this disc is that I could spend my whole review on the peculiar subject of the pedal piano - best done with an illustration I think - and not very much time on the music. That would be a shame as interest is split fifty-fifty between these two areas.
 
So to the pedal piano first, then. Imagine a piano double-deckered on top of another piano to which it’s attached; imagine the higher instrument slightly nearer the pianist, who sits on an organ-loft-like stool; imagine the pianist’s feet working the foot pedals of the lower instrument. In a photo of the recording, showing Roberto Prosseda playing and pedalling away, this strange instrument looks nothing like the piano à pédalier (in French) or, in German, Pedalflügel in which a piano with a pedal keyboard is attached to a second set of strings. That’s the instrument for which Schumann and Alkan wrote and which Mozart owned. But this recording employs the 2012 Pinchi pedal piano system, in which two Model D Steinway grands are combined in the way described above. The pedal board has 37 pedals, these operating 61 wooden ‘fingers’ which depress the lowest 61 keys of the piano; the range is five octaves. The booklet note outlines this with helpful precision.
 
Though originally designed for organists to practice outside church, clearly this is where sound and spectacle coincide. For Gounod the opportunity proved irresistible. His 1886 Suite concertante - composed in the same year that Franck wrote his intense, cyclical Violin Sonata - offers instead festive Grétry-like charm complete with effervescent and glittering right-hand runs, the melodic impress of the music emerging as graceful froth. There’s a role for the hunting horns in the Chasse - nicely distant in places to emphasis the spatial aspect of the hunt - all of which is pertly picked up by the piano along with elegant cantabile too. The Romance is a lovely, rather aria-like affair, with the piano as often as not decorating the theme, whilst the finale is a pert tarantella though it’s orchestrally a touch bland.
 
The portentous-sounding Concerto for pedal piano in E flat major was composed three years later. The writing here is a little more Beethovenian and there are more obvious opportunities for pedalling. The concerto acts out the oppositional rather than, as in the Suite, the more collaborative and collegiate aspects of music-making. The concerto panders more to the titillating virtuosity of the pedal piano, as well, though there’s a lovely lyrical moment amidst the funereal byplay of the slow movement. The outer sections seem to evoke a Beethoven piano sonata, whilst the Rondo finale is full of infectious joie de vivre.
 
There are two small works to end. The Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe is the earliest of the pedal-piano works, very brassy and bold but with some Saint-Saëns moments reflective of a Bachian influence. The Danse roumaine is a pretty confident affair, but more dance than roumaine in my book.
 
All these pieces are negotiated with enviable skill by Prosseda and accompanied by Howard Shelley, who directs the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana with taste shorn of routine. I doubt I’ll have much occasion to hear these lightweight charmers again, but I’m glad to have made their acquaintance in such committed performances, with a recording to match.
 
Jonathan Woolf  

Reviews of the Hyperion Piano Concerto series