Although the various iterations of the early piano were growing in popularity during the 18th century, the harpsichord continued to be popular as well. So much so that several instrument makers tried to combine the two radically different keyboard instruments into one that could be played simultaneously by two people. This one, borrowed from a musical instrument museum in Verona, Italy, is one of the most extravagant examples of such a mutant instrument. It was constructed in 1777 and is called a vis-a-vis. At one end is a fortepiano with something called a “moderator” stop – I gather similar to a lute stop on a harpsichord. At the other end of the instrument (so the two performers face one another) is a three-manual harpsichord! Only one other such odd creation still exists today. The vis-a-vis has a wide variety of different sounds, textures, tone and dynamics, and the Staier and Schornsheim Duo has selected a program of works for keyboard duet by Mozart to show off its very unusual properties.
Three of the short works are special “preludes” which keyboardists of the 18th century improvised to test out the tunings and overall balances of instruments – really just running up and down the keyboard, but in a rather artistic way – especially in Mozart’s case, in which he luckily wrote down some of his brilliant improvisations. The first one will surprise the ears with its volume of clattering sound – the vis-a-vis is at the other end of the dynamic range of early keyboards from the quiet clavichord. The two clavier sonatas were written especially for four hands duet playing by Mozart and his sister, so they are just transferred directly to the vis-a-vis. The quite different timbres of the two halves of the instrument highlight the sections in which a clear melody line is supported in the bass by the secondo accompaniment part. The Six Variations are on a theme from one of Giovanni Paisiello’s popular operas of the time, and show off Mozart’s virtuoso writing with much more color and texture contrasts than performance on any single keyboard could offer. I have in my collection a number of recordings of works for harpsichord and piano, as well as for pipe organ and piano, but this unique CD combines that idea in a single instrument!
– John Sunier