A SCHUBERTIADE ON THE LISZT GRAND PIANO
The idea of a Schubertiade always carries a touch of nostalgia. The origin of the term was a series of house concerts which took place in Vienna in Franz Schubert’s own time. He used the occasions to present his newest compositions to a circle of cultivated listeners, and the programme typically included his piano music and lieder. For me personally though, the word Schubertiade means more than just the now standard label for a concert featuring Schubert’s music. For me, it also implies an atmosphere of a special sort of intimacy. The best sort of Schubertiade is when it feels like a house concert, like the original sense of the term, where the listeners have the feeling that Schubert’s music is addressed personally to each individual.
In the historic Rococo Hall of the Steingraeber Haus in Bayreuth, there is a grand piano which perfectly embodies this spirit of nostalgia and intimacy. This is the Steingraeber piano with the number 5930, a historical instrument made in the year 1892. The instrument is also referred to as the Liszt Grand Piano. Of course this doesn’t mean that it was an instrument which actually belonged to the composer, who is fact died in 1886, before it was built. This instrument is however identical in construction with the last piano that Franz Liszt did in fact own. It was also a Steingraeber, built in 1886, and bearing the number 4328. These details are substantiated by a copy of the delivery contract signed by Cosima Wagner.
We were intrigued both by the history of the instrument and the historical cross-connection from Liszt to Schubert. After all, Franz Liszt had paid a special musical tribute to Franz Schubert by dedicating to him the virtuosic and sensitive song arrangements. So, after we had had the opportunity to get to know the instrument by actually playing it, there was no doubt in our minds but that our next piano four hands recording simply had to be made using this very piano, and also that the recording
should be a Schubertiade.
Our decision to use this historic Liszt Grand Piano for the recording was quite conscious, because its sound just exudes those two characteristics of a “real” Schubertiade, nostalgia and intimacy.
Playing one piano with four hands is a tricky business, and requires a lot of empathy. The two performers sit close together at one and the same instrument. They have to achieve a unified sound, and not only that, but four-handed playing demands constant attention to fine points of balance, very subtle shading of nuances in the various registers, and alert eyes and ears for perfect ensemble playing. And of course, making a recording on a historical instrument is in itself aways something of an adventure. Modern ears and hands, accustomed to mechanical perfection and perfect tonal balance, first have to establish contact with an instrument that may not always do everything one would like it to, but which makes up for that by itself communicating with the player. It’s an instrument that refuses to fulfill each and every whim of the player, but which compensates one in unexpected ways, like offering a special delicacy of tone, a sound, where every register delights with its own special shading of tonal color. The performer has to be humble enough not just to place one-sided demands on the piano, but also to become alert to the special things the piano in turn offers to the player.