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Schubert: Works for fortepiano vol. 2

Impromptus D899 & D935
Sonatas G major D894 & Sonata E flat major D568

Jan Vermeulen
(fortepiano by Nanette Streicher und Sohn, restored under supervision of Jan Vermeulen)

Etcetera KTC1331 (2 Cds)

“…that wonderful moment in May or June 1998 when the supposed harpsichord that had been buried under a layer of dust in the castle attics [Castle VilainVIII in Leut, Belgium] was revealed to be an authentic Nanette Streicher (née Stein) und Sohn (Johann Baptiste) fortepiano…”

So begins the booklet note by the director of the chamber music series at the castle and I heartily share his enthusiasm.

Of all the hundreds of makers in Vienna in the early 19th century, instruments by Stein and then Streicher carried the reputation as among the best in terms of build quality and evenness of touch and sound. Letters from the greatest composers of the day attest this and to actually turn up such an instrument, dated and numbered must have been indeed a “wonderful moment”. It puts me in mind of the recent discovery that a Pleyel grand in the Hatchlands Collection in Surrey, UK, was the one owned by Chopin.

However, it gets better than that. The fortepianist Jan Vermuelen was entrusted to oversee the restoration which was carried out by Bob Van Brandt and Mark Faes and then the action was restored by Chris Maene. They have clearly brought the instrument back to life in a way that is so often missing from modern restorations: on the evidence of this recording they have given it back its soul. This is most noticeable in the extreme treble where many Viennese instruments produce a boxy and dry tone but not this one. It has a luminescence that makes sense of so much of the music recorded here. Examples of this are the beginning of the A flat major Impromptu (D899), the end of the first section of the F minor Impromptu (D935) and the last movement of the E flat Major sonata.

To my ears, the recorded sound is probably a little close: accented notes tend to “shout” and yet the player is not “breaking the sound” – creating a brittle, wooden tone – which would indicate that too much force is applied. However, this only really bothered me listening for a long stretch on headphones and was less of a problem over speakers.

Jan Vermeulen clearly knows and relishes the instrument and he certainly plays this music efficiently. Quite often I found myself wishing for more evidence of Schubert the great song-writer – many great melodic moments are straightforwardly presented with little in the way of rhetorical or even vocal quality. I also found that Vermeulen tends to paint his pictures with primary colours only: I suspect that the close recorded sound did not help this slightly negative impression.

I have not heard Volume one of Vermeulen’s cycle and I will certainly be tracking it down but it will mainly be for the right music played on a stunning instrument (one that will convert many fortepiano dislikers, I suspect, if they ever got to try it) rather than any interpretative insights.

Steven Devine