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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Klavierstück D. 946 No. 2 [12:46]
Impromptu D. 899 No. 3 [4:09]
Klavierstück D. 946 No. 1 [14:47]
Impromptu D. 899 No. 4 [6:14]
Moment musical D. 780 No. 2 [7:15]
Impromptu D. 935 No. 4 [6:10]
Wanderer Fantasy in C, D. 760 [21:37]
Jura Margulis (piano con sordino)
rec. details not provided with eClassical download

Jura Margulis’ Schubert recital is exciting because we don’t often get to review a new musical instrument. That is what Margulis built for this album. The idea: fortepianos in the time of Beethoven and Schubert had a strong mute (“sordino”) pedal, so why not add one to a modern grand piano? The typical concert grand today has a mute that’s next to useless. You might disagree if you haven’t heard a Conrad Graf piano from the 1830s, the muted version of which sounds like a totally different instrument. Margulis correctly says, in the booklet, that the sordino on historical keyboards is “beautiful, sonorous, and delicate”, and “pianos in the early 19th century … whispered much softer.”

Rather than exploit this capability with truly great recordings on original instruments, like Penelope Crawford, Alexei Lubimov (Schubert impromptus), and Andreas Staier have done, Margulis was inspired to build a modern piano with such a pedal. He worked with the piano-makers at Steingraeber (“Mr. Steingraeber” is described at work in the booklet), and produced a model which mutes as effectively as any in the 1800s, but otherwise is totally modern in sound.

This album is the first recording of the new piano. It is, mostly, a fine instrument. The mute is wonderfully effective. I am especially keen on the delicate way it renders bass notes. When mute is off, some of the treble notes are glassy and over-bright, but this may be how the audio was recorded in the studio; the problem is most obvious on D. 935 No. 4. Margulis, also, is a quality Schubert interpreter, and there is no way I can complain about his pacing, virtuosity or the way he characterizes each work. The impromptus are marvellous. The Wanderer Fantasy is bold, confident, and notable for Margulis’s flawless choices on when to use — and when not to use — the sordino pedal.

This experiment is only half-successful, for a number of reasons. First, it’s not always clear when the sordino pedal is in effect, because Margulis is not always a big fan of dynamic contrast. He’s commanding in the Wanderer, but the second Klavierstück is almost all quiet, so your ears strive to hear “is that quieter than before?” Then comes the Impromptu D. 899 No. 2, in which I’m pretty sure he never uses the new pedal at all.

If you want to hear a sordino pedal in magical action, listen to the way Penelope Crawford plays the final Beethoven piano sonata. Certain variations of the arietta — often described with words like “alien” — beg for the pedal, and once you hear how that great work sounds on an 1830s instrument, even a Steinway pales in comparison. Crawford uses the sordino pedal sparingly but powerfully; when I hear it, my breath catches. My favourite sordino performance ever, however, is Alexei Lubimov’s 2010 Zig-Zag recording of Schubert, and specifically the famous G-flat impromptu, voiced with an exquisite tenderness that makes a modern piano sound like a clumsy interloper.

Sometimes Margulis’s usage of his special pedal is obvious, like at 10:39, 12:51 and 13:30 in the Klavierstück D. 946 No. 1. Here we run into the second problem: the effect is just not as dramatic on a modern piano. His booklet essay amply justifies his desire to have the sordino pedal; it never justifies, not once, his desire to have a new instrument. To my mind, Graf’s 1830s instruments were simply better, and better for Schubert.

With that caveat in mind, if you disagree with me and prefer today’s concert grands, then listen to this album and your ears will open. This pedal opens a range of expression which has long been closed to artists. I hope it becomes standard, because it solves a problem. The Margulis sordino pedal is a major improvement on current grand pianos. It’s just not an improvement on the fortepianos of the 1830s. The originals are still the best.

Brian Reinhart