Jos van Immerseel came to my attention in the mid-1980s as a purveyor of the harpsichord and the authenticity movement. He extends (rec. 1997) his musicological explorations into the romantic realm of late Schubert, playing an 1835 Viennese pianoforte in startlingly good condition, whose tone and timbre place it just at the crossroads between the flimsy, light action of the early pianos and the sturdy, resonant action of the modern instrument. Subtitled “Abschied von einem Freunde,” the album purports to be an elegiac look at Schubert from the vantage point of his 1828 posthumous pieces, of which the B-flat Sonata is a towering example.
The performance of the B-flat Sonata is an expansive one, including all repeats in the first movement and the weird, repeated, modal chords which form a part of the ominous trill which interrupts the lyrical main theme. The Troendlin instrument conveys sudden shifts on dynamics and digital pressure with fine gradations of nuance: the power of the pianoforte and the intimacy of the earlier clavichord action is subtly balanced. The lightness of the sounding board permits the long line and brilliant symmetry of Schubert’s architecture to shine, while the resonance of the midrange and bass tones preserve the tragic vehemence into which Schubert descends. The Andante sostenuto proceeds from a delicately modulated meditation, quasi-habanera, to a richly layered tapestry of vivid colors and ecstatic longing. If ever a keyboard instrument reminded you of its lutenist and virginal roots, this pianoforte does. The Scherzo almost sounds as if it were executed on a harpsichord, the antiphonal effects and dynamics pressure alter so quickly. The registration for the Trio section calls for the more modern piano sound, making the emotional schizophrenia that much greater. The plastic lines of the Allegro ma non troppo synthesize all we have heard prior, from the martial opening motifs to the running parlando and staccato figures Immerseel weaves in relentless trajectory toward a preconceived end. On its own terms, within its boldly defined syntax, this reading is superb.
The turbid ebb and flow of human misery which opens the E-flat Minor Klavierstuck testifies to the idiosyncratic, virile power and colored dynamics of which the Troendlin instrument is capable, a real moment from Schubert’s own time. Its expansive middle section is a combination of lyre and Aeolian harp. Almost no pause separates the ensuing E-flat Major Klavierstuck, a more genial form of melancholy in the outer sections, but whose interior is obsessively rife with the heart of darkness. Only the C Major, with its pomp and tricky metrics, contributes a note of gaiety and good heart.
The CD-ROM component, If you can implement it on your Mac or PC, permits you to interact with the specifics and acoustic properties of the 1835 Troendlin Pianoforte. Hopefully you’ll have better luck than I did.