For longstanding keyboard staff-member Associate Professor Stephanie McCallum, recording her most recent CD with former student and medal-winning Conservatorium alumnus, Erin Helyard, was like being a mouse in a cheese shop.
Here was a room of historic pianos – one had been played by Mahler – built by the great Parisian firm Erard, which had transformed piano technology in the 1820s with the invention of the “double escapement”. All had been lovingly restored to superb playing condition by the world’s foremost Erard expert Frits Janmaat (Stephanie calls him a “piano whisperer”).
Erard pianos were favoured by many nineteenth century composers, including Liszt and Beethoven and were the preferred instrument of the reclusive virtuosic genius, Charles-Valentin Alkan of whose music Stephanie has recorded six CDs to date. The Erard “double escapement”, which allowed rapid repetition and more nuanced use of arm weight, superseded the light Viennese piano used by Mozart and essentially created the modern piano action. But the Erard pianos retained “straight-stringing” keeping the strings in parallel instead of crossing the bass strings over the treble as in modern pianos, and Stephanie and Erin were delighted to discover the clarity and sweetness of sound this delivered.
This distinctive quality was captured in Super-Audio-CD format with remarkable fidelity by the new Dutch recording company TRPTK (say Triptych). The CD contains the first ever recording of Alkan’s arrangement of the overture for Meyerbeer’s hugely popular opera, Le Prophète, about a delusional leader who disrupted the German town of Münster with promises and false facts.
The other work by Alkan is a set of Preludes originally written for pédalier, a piano fitted with a pedal board of which Alkan was a master, and arranged for two pianists by the late nineteenth century virtuoso Vianna da Motta. Playing operatic hits in four-handed arrangements was a popular nineteenth-century pass time in the pre-recording age and the disc concludes with Moscheles’ exuberant paraphrase of operatic highlights from Weber’s Euryanthe and Oberon, the Hommage à Weber Op. 102.
‘McCallum’s distinctive, soloistic singing line is imaginatively supported by Helyard’s very fine accompaniment, always alert, but daringly in the background. Here (as elsewhere) Helyard’s experience as an opera conductor and continuo player shines through. Helyard and McCallum make such fine duo partners. Both have the digital mastery and imagination to coax a vast range of colours and characters from the keyboard. All their choices of characterisation seem in sympathy with the musical writing, and they never lose that invisible thread that projects from the concert platform to the auditorium. That’s a remarkable feat for a recording. By rights this CD should be in for several awards. It should certainly be on the shelves of every serious performing institution, and in the hands of all who value vital and creative piano playing of the highest quality, not to mention listeners who love to explore rare repertoire. A remarkable achievement.’