What I took home most from Andreas Staier’s fortepiano recital at the Wigmore Hall was the fact that in the first half of the 19th century, the piano was still very much a developing instrument, and the composers were often pushing its limits both mechanically and sonically. Therefore, depending on the type of fortepiano, the same programme would probably sound very different. For this recital, Staier chose a beautifully restored 1837 Erard piano which was brought over specially from the Netherlands. 1837 was also the year Schumann composed his strikingly original Fantasiestücke Op.12 which formed the centre of this recital, so it was a particularly ideal instrument for the Schumann repertoire.

Andreas Staier © MolinaVisuals
Andreas Staier
© MolinaVisuals

Appropriately, Staier’s thoughtful programme of early Romantic character-pieces was framed by Schumann’s two Fantasiestücke – one from his early period (Op.12) and one from his late period (Op.111). But his starting point for this programme must have been Beethoven’s Bagatelles Op.126 (1824) which he performed in the second half. Staier must be very fond of this set of six pieces – Beethoven’s last oeuvre for the piano – because I remember him playing them two years ago at the same venue prefacing the Diabelli Variations.

It seems somehow significant that Beethoven’s last piano work was not a sonata but a set of character-pieces. There is a freedom of form that must have influenced Schubert and even Schumann. Staier’s playing was both nuanced and articulate, highlighting the contrasts of the moods between the pieces as well as the sections. Bagatelle no. 3 was particularly poignantly played, a chorale-like introspective work reminiscent of his late string quartets composed around the same time. Staier also captured the quixotic nature of the final bagatelle that begins and ends abruptly with a flourish.

Earlier, Staier had opened the recital with a small selection from Schubert’s two sets of Impromptus and Moment Musicaux – a piece each from each set. The C minor Impromptu from the D899 set is a substantial work inhabiting a bleak world akin to Winterreise, also composed that year, and indeed Staier played the piece like a lied without the text, negotiating the many sectional transitions with such natural fluidity. The way Staier played the first note and let it decay was particularly memorable – such an effect is only possible on a fortepiano. The popular F minor Moment Musical and the A flat major Impromptu from D935 were played with unaffected simplicity offering emotional relief.

After the harmonic and textural clarity of the Schubert, I was struck by what a wildly different soundworld Schumann had created in his Fantasiestücke Op.12, a set of eight character-pieces. Somehow the difference seems more prominent on the fortepiano – perhaps because this would have been the sort of instrument Schumann would have exploited. The harmonic language is more complex and sensuous, and the texture more dense and multi-layered. To ears used to hearing Schumann on modern pianos, however, it felt at times that one doesn’t hear all the textural details on a fortepiano (it may be partly to do with the difference in pedals).

Staier’s interpretation brilliantly emphasized the fantasy and youthful passion in these pieces, so much so that he occasionally seemed to forego technical precision in the really fast passages (especially in “Aufschwung”). I think he was not only pushing the limits of the instrument but his own technical limits in order to capture Schumann’s spirit but there were a couple of hairy moments. Still, in this performance, one could appreciate that the young Schumann was pianistically as innovative as Liszt was, just in a different, more poetic and intimate way.

The sixth piece “Fabel” (Fable), framed by its “once upon a time” motifs unfolded imaginatively under Staier’s fingers and this was followed by “Traumes Wirren” (Dream’s Confusions) where the whirling semiquavers were played with a lightness of touch only possible on a fortepiano. On the other hand, the quick repeated notes in “Ende von Lied” was obviously more difficult on the fortepiano than the modern piano, but he brought the work to a poignant close with the meditative coda.

In comparison, the Op.111 Fantasiestücke that closed the recital was generally more introspective and subdued in tone. Rather than extrovert fantasy, all three pieces are more concerned with inner fantasy. The dreamy quality Staier brought out in the song-like second piece was especially memorable. It was a resonant recital on a resonant fortepiano.

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