GOUNOD Suite concertante in A. Concerto for Pedal Piano in E?. Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe. Danse roumaine • Roberto Prosseda (pedal pn); Howard Shelley, cond; O della Svizzera Italiana • HYPERION 67975 (55:56)
Fringe instruments—by which I mean ones that never made it into general use, or faded out of use—hold a fascination for many classical listeners, and students of musical history. The chromatic harpsichord had its day in the mid-17th century, forRead more example, with anywhere between 19 and over 30 keys per octave to account for perfect major thirds. The well-tempered system effectively banished the cembalo cromatico and the archicembalo to museums. Other instruments that became fringe for a while have been fortunate enough to stage a comeback, such as the portative organ and the cornett. But these vanished before the standard concert repertoire was devised, only to appear in concerts devoted to that broad, incredibly diverse world unaccountably gathered under the single term “early music.”
One later instrument that never made it into general use, but persisted on the fringes for a long time, was the non-organ pedal keyboard. For composers who could afford it, owning one meant being able to practice organ works at any time, without the inconvenience of interrupting church services and the potentially life-threatening hazard of having to practice in unheated organ lofts in the winter. We know that Bach owned a pedal harpsichord, and Mozart a pedal fortepiano. Many of these earlier models included a pedal board within the instrument; Schumann had one of these. But as the 19th century progressed, and sonority became an increasingly important element in classical music, a second type of pedal piano emerged, one suited to concert performance. This new version involved placing a second piano underneath a top one, with the pedals attached to its belly for added volume and overtones. It can’t be said this pedal piano ever achieved the status of a public favorite, but there were performers shrewd enough to capitalize on its appearance and sound, and composers who wrote for them.
Lucie Palicot (c. 1860–?), pianist, organist, and composer, realized that her concert career would be greatly improved by concentrating on pedal piano works, instead of going head-to-head with the horde of other concert pianists of her day. (As one commentator noted, it didn’t hurt either that a constant recourse to the pedal keyboard required a knee-length skirt, in place of the voluminous dresses usual at the time.) She actively canvassed for works from celebrated musicians, and charmed Gounod, who referred to her in letters to his wife as “mon petite Palicote” (sic). This resulted in several works during the 1880s. All those that survive are presented on this album.
The 1886 Suite concertante is actually longer than the Concerto of 1889, but definitely lighter in tone, and less inspired. The Scherzo, labeled “Chasse,” is more of a galop, but a pleasant one, and the slow movement has its moments early on when Gounod channels the more Classical, less Romantic side of his musical personality. The rest is polished, but eminently forgettable. Saint-Saëns did this kind of thing far better.
The Concerto for Pedal Piano from 1889 is a more ambitious work, and a more successful one. Gounod makes far more use of the pedals—often in simple figurations, its true, but to excellent effect in the Scherzo, where they function as a canonic echo in the outer sections, while bringing back fragments of the main theme under the suave trio melody. The a-b-a Adagio features a chromatic funeral march à la Alkan, interrupted by the kind of blandly uplifting melody that occurs more regularly in the composer’s sacred output (which is far more extensive than generally realized). The Finale’s designation, allegretto marziale, is to be taken literally: martial horncalls and arpeggiated runs take up nearly half the movement before giving way to one of Gounod’s more distinctive themes, with more than a hint of the waltz about it.
It’s easy to see what would interest Gounod in the Russian national anthem of the period: its chorale-like character, combined with the ability for counterpoint, harmonic variation, and diminution in the bass. The pedal piano was just the thing for this. The Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe (1885) plays on all of these. There are a few harmonic surprises, some attractive thematic fragmentation, and canonic hints that never go beyond what Gounod presumably thought his audience could safely absorb. There’s little bombast, and the work’s length (under five minutes) assures that it doesn’t over-last its welcome.
The album concludes with the Danse roumaine of 1888, one of two works Gounod discussed in a letter for Palicot to play at the soirees of the wealthy Madame Desgenétais. (The latter was also the dedicatee a couple of years later of a published essay by Gounod on the subject of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The second work for pedal piano mentioned in the letter, a Chorale and Toccata, has since vanished.) The main theme has some characteristics of Romanian folk music in its very distant ancestry, but comes far closer to Gounod in one of his Bach Lite moods, with a simple figurative bass under a chorale-like theme. There’s a goodly amount of dull filler around it, but presumably the composer believed the theme and the unusual instrumentation (one assumes Palicot performed a solo or duet arrangement in the Desgenétais salon) were sufficient for his intended audience.
The performances are immaculate. The Swiss-Italian Orchestra isn’t the richest sounding or best blended in Europe, but its soloists are strong, and its performance as solidly professional as one could wish. Howard Shelley achieves a scintillating transparency from his musicians, and a rhythmic élan that is impossible to resist in the finales of both the Suite and Concerto. Roberto Prosseda emphasizes clarity and evenness in this music, and the fine engineering seconds him.
In short, the music ranges from uninspired to fun, but the performances make it work. Recommended with reservations as noted.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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, MusicWeb International Read less
Fantaisie sur l'hymne national russeby Charles Gounod Performer:
Roberto Prosseda (Piano)
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana
Period: Romantic Written: 1886; France
Danse roumaine by Charles Gounod Performer:
Roberto Prosseda (Piano)
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana
Period: Romantic Written: 1888
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
SuperbAugust 13, 2014By Henry S. (Springfield, VA)See All My Reviews"This new Hyperion recording, Vol. 62 in its acclaimed Romantic Piano Concerto series, presents works by the French composer Charles Gounod for something called the 'pedal piano.' You are not alone in wondering what a pedal piano is; I had no clue until reading the very informative CD notes. As it turns out, the pedal piano uses foot pedals underneath a standard piano to control a second set of piano strings, in this case a second grand piano. There is a picture of pianist Roberto Prosseda playing this rather odd looking arrangement during the recording session, and this will give you a much clearer understanding of this device. The impact of what amounts to a second piano is best noted in Gounod's Concerto for Pedal Piano in E Flat Major, as you can easily imagine a second pianist at work. All four compositions on this disk are airy, highly mellifluous works with a light, insouciant French touch. Roberto Prosseda's work at the keyboard (and pedals!) is intelligent, straightforward, and convincing, while conductor Howard Shelley leads the Swiss Italian Orchestra in excellent accompaniment. The sound quality of the recording is top notch, and the balance between soloist and orchestra seems about perfect. These works are probably unfamiliar to most of the Arkivmusic community, as they were to me. That, of course, is all the more reason to try this altogether outstanding recording. Highly recommended."Report Abuse