Amazing Musical  and Pianistic Insight from Andreas Staier  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven: Andreas Staier (fortepiano), Wigmore Hall, London, 23.10.2014

Impromptu in C minor D899 No.1
Moment Musical in F minor D780 No.3
Impromptu in A Major D935 No.2
Fantasiestücke Op.12
Drei Fantasiestücke Op. 111
Beethoven :  Six Bagatelles Op.126

Staier, together with the likes of Ronald Brautigan,  has played a pivotal, much needed role in promoting the importance and range of the fortepiano. Certainly the tone of the fortepiano, its clarity and even intimacy, is very much  the the tone the likes of Schubert and Schumann would have heard and played. Tonight Staier played on an Erard (Paris, 1837) instrument. The programme note heading described the different tone of the fortepiano as ‘reduced’. I would rather see it as re-cast into a totally different piano tone-scape. This in no way to imply that the modern Steinway (or other eminent brand) is surpassed. It is more a valuable alternative.

The Four Impromptus which constitute D 899 are full of brilliant and subtle finger work, with prominent contrasts, and amazing right-hand rotation studies. Much of this was evident in the first C minor Impromptu. Far from being just an impromptu, this piece almost takes on the scope of a sonata movement. Staier balanced every component in a masterful way. The march -like rhythm was so ‘there’, but it never sounded ‘underlined’. The rippling accompaniment theme in the mid-section quasi-development imitating the main march theme, but also in utter contrast to it, sounded particularly luminous in its clarity and warmth.  The third Moment musical, the more popular one with a ‘Rosamunde’ theme, sounded so spontaneous, it almost played itself. But this is the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation! Staier caught to perfection the gentle but persistent dance-like Air Russe in F minor. Of the four pieces of the second Book of Impromptus. the second is probably the most simple with its flowing Allegretto and trio with its constant but nimble triplet rhythm. Again Staier added enormous clarity and finesse, fully registering the more minor key modulation in the extended and moving coda.

This was playing of the highest standard. But for me the two works by Schumann had a particular resonance. Initially I thought this rather strange as Staier has mostly focused on the ‘classical’ repertoire and Schumann is generally seen as the quintessential ‘Romantic’ composer. This image is compounded by the composer’s literary inspirations: ETA Hoffmann, Novalis, Tieck with their tales of fantasy and ‘profane illumination’. Also Schumann’s music is shot through with incredibly conceived counterpoint. but  it is a contrapuntal design which always comes to life, never sounding dead or didactic. All this sounded wonderful on Staier’s fortepiano, producing a warm glow in concerted passages while maintaining the fortepiano’s particularly resonant clarity. This was evident in the opening piece of the Op. 12 Fantasiestücke, Des Abends (in the evening), a nocturne in 3/8 time with triplets for overlapping hands. The opening melody which floats over odd rhythms (so typical of Schumann) was again all there with no emphasis, and  pefect balance. Staier played the ‘Aufschwung’ (soaring), really an extended rondo, with a lightness of touch, which however maintained a certain resilience. The modulations from D flat major to B flat major were intoned with consummate pianism. Warum? (Why?) with its slow and ‘tender’ contour, was made more luminous than is usual by Staier’s attention to the elaborate contrapuntal part-writing subtending the piece. In der nacht (In the night) alludes to  ancient allegories of heroes and their conquests and defeats – to be played ‘with  passion’. Staier rightly emphasised the contrasts between a slow melody and sprightly skipping 2/4 sequences. Traumes Wirren (Dream Visions), marked ‘extremely lively, intones the variation mode in miniature, so to speak. Ende vom Lied (End of the Song) recounts ‘good humour’. Staier managed the tonal contrast to a broad easy-doing melody in F major with great subtlety, every note sounding spontaneous  as with the contrast to the chiming B flat ending suggesting ‘wedding bells’.   The coda turns the bell motif into a deadly, but resolute, seriousness. The ‘nostalgic final bars ‘echo the opening melody in  slow motion. as if heard in a dream. Schumann reckoned Op.12 amonst the ‘piano compositions I regard as my best’. Staier was in total accord with this evaluation tonight.

In the Beethoven Bagatelles Op.126 Staier emphasised the works’ amazing range of contrasts  in the work as a whole, and within each movement.  In No.1 we were made particularly aware of the meter changes from 3/4 to 2/4., in No.4 the quite turbulent tone of B minor (a key Beethoven rarely deployed) with a static trio section in B major. No. 3 alternates between material of elaborate ornamentation and free flowing strands of melody, almost suggesting a kind parody, or as one commentator has put it ‘paradox’. This notion of contrast and paradox is developed even further in the final Bagatelle marked ‘Presto – Andante amabile e con moto. The forward thrusting ‘Presto’ goes through various tonal/dynamic modulations which transmogrify into the ‘Andante’, with its luminous and song-like textures, reminiscent (as one commentator claimed) of the ‘Arietta’ movement  of Beethoven’s late piano and final sonata Op 111. Staier paid attention to every detail in each Bagatelle, while always managing to cohere detail to the larger totalising structure of the composition as a whole – quite an achievement, certainly not attained by every pianist who has approached this short, but most important Beethoven opus.

The recital ended with Schumann’s later set of Fantasiestücke Op. 111. These are much less played/performed than earlier set Op. 12 heard  tonight. The work is usually described as a ‘unified triptych, the word ‘attaca’ at the close of Nos. and 2 underlining Schumann’s wish for continuity. Although less  familiar than the earlier cycle the three movements of Op.111 are in no way inferior, indeed it could be argued, and has been, that they contain more complex and challenging music, both in varying dynamics and tonal range and juxtaposition. The music is underpinned by the key of C minor, probably yet another tribute to Beethoven’s Op. 111 Piano Sonata. Schumann originally included the allegorical mythical figures of ‘Eusebius’ and ‘Florestan’ in the work’s title. And the work it is imbued with the serene, dreamy quality of ‘Eusebius’ and the impetuous character of ‘Florestan’  Florestan is certainly at work in No.1 with its stormy C minor outbursts, while No.2 contrasts the the Eusebian  rapture with Florestan-inspired agitation.  No. 3 is full of march rhythms which recede into cascading replies to the previous two movements. Again Staier inflected every detail with amazing musical and pianistic insight, never sounding mannered or over-rhetorical and achieving a kind of tralucent glow and clarity from his fortepiano – all qualities maintained in Schumann’s own playing and expected from interpreters of his music.

Geoff Diggines  


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