The Fifth Element #36

Were I trying to make a living by giving piano recitals, David Stanhope's new CD, A Virtuoso Recital (Tall Poppies TP184), just might tempt me to wash down a fistful of pills with a bottle of Scotch. The saving grace being that Stanhope seems to have enough things to occupy himself with in his native Australia. The risk of his showing up in New York City and playing a recital, thereby giving a lot of people existential crises and sleepless nights, seems remote.

Stanhope first came to my attention courtesy the nice folks at Stuart & Sons pianos, whose innovative refinements of piano string-coupling technology I detailed in this column in the January 2005 Stereophile (Vol.28 No.1), in which I also mentioned several recordings made on Stuart & Sons pianos.

In due course I awarded David Stanhope Plays (Tall Poppies TP135) a nod for my 2005 "Records To Die For." It has since stayed in the rack in which I keep CDs I use to evaluate equipment, most of which I also listen to for pleasure. Listening to Stanhope thunder away on Busoni's transcription of J.S. Bach's "St. Anne" prelude and fugue through the ESP-darTZeel-EMM system mentioned in my last column, in April, was really something.

Interestingly enough, Stanhope's new recording was made using a Steinway piano. The venue was The Studio at the Sydney Opera House, so perhaps it was simply a case of the unavailability of a Stuart & Sons instrument. I somewhat prefer the almost harpsichord-like incisiveness of the Stuart & Sons sound, but if any disagree, I will not consign them to the outer darkness.

Stanhope seems to approach recording as though he were giving a performance. There is a great sense of organic development, tension, and flow. What may make his approach less rewarding for listeners of a certain bent is that, once in a great while, there is a minor imperfection in fingering or articulation. Such things usually pass unnoticed in a live recital, but in our age of hyper-hygienic, over-edited recordings, they might impair some peoples' enjoyment. My advice: Learn from the experience. Get over it. Perhaps attending more live concerts would help.

I discussed this issue once with André Watts, who told me that when he was unhappy with one piece in a live recital that was being recorded for commercial release, rather than record an insert to be edited in later, he insisted on adding the piece to the next recital on that tour that was also to be recorded. He did this because he did not want to misrepresent an edited recording as a live one, and because he doubted that an insert could do justice to the overall architecture of that performance of the piece. So, with Stanhope, just as with some of the great old Nimbus "do it in one take" recordings, you gain organicity but lose some minute degree of cosmetic perfection. Sounds good to me.

As will surprise almost no one, Stanhope selected the music on A Virtuoso Recital from the list of dreaded finger-busters. This is perhaps not always the deepest music, but I think there are times when we can enjoy instrumental virtuosity for its own sake, the same way we enjoy Olympic gymnastics or platform diving: that is, without worrying about their greater significance. A Virtuoso Recital is indeed arranged like a live recital, with a curtain raiser, two substantial works in the middle, a jaw-dropper, and an encore.

The curtain raiser is Schumann's Toccata in C, Op.7. Not exactly my favorite musical genre, but I recognize that I am in the minority; perhaps, were I a former piano student rather than a former violin and voice student, I would feel differently. I don't know if the listener's leg is being pulled, but in his liner notes Stanhope claims that because the Toccata's final chord calls for the stretch of a twelfth in the left hand, in order to avoid arpeggiating that part of the chord, he plays the left-hand top note with his tongue. How he can do that without knocking his head on the fallboard, I don't pretend to know. But I do have faith that it was not accomplished animatronically, or by editing.

Next up is the original piano version of Fauré's Ballade in F-sharp, Op.19. Stanhope revels in the Impressionist chromaticism, with subtly judged dynamics and pace. Following the Fauré comes the most substantial work on the program, Rachmaninoff's 13 Preludes, Op.32. Stanhope's approach is very personal, by which I mean that he views the Preludes as intensely personal utterances on Rachmaninoff's part, and finds in the last one a brusque "Take that!" at a sometimes uncomprehending world. Prelude 10, in b, swells to awesome volume, by the way.

The first jaw-dropper is Liszt's transcription of the Wedding March and Elves' Dance from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer's Night's Dream. In his notes, Stanhope remarks that perhaps Mendelssohn was fortunate not to live long enough to hear it. One can image a cranky Liszt thinking, "People think this is good music? I shall reveal the insipidity that lies within!" Some of the distortions of the familiar melody and its rhythm should have you cracking up; at times the proceedings verge on Gilbert and Sullivan. And of course, being solo Liszt, it is a finger-buster, and Stanhope dispatches it with aplomb.

The encore (also a jaw-dropper) is the first recording of Stanhope's own transcription of Sibelius' song "The Tryst," and it is as fine a piece of late-Romantic keyboard swashbuckling as one could ask for. I suspect that its bodice-rippingly bombastic extravagances might not stand up to unlimitedly repeated listenings, but the pianists out there will be agog, for sure. Or giggling hysterically. (Violinist Arturo Delmoni's reaction: "I'm speechless.") Stanhope dishes out double handfuls of what, in another context, would be called power chords. His dynamic range is staggering. You really must hear "The Tryst."

Just as Ivan Moravec's performance of Brahms' Intermezzo in A, Op.118 No.2, is my touchstone for artistic nuance in piano playing, the Sibelius-Stanhope "Tryst" is my new touchstone for pedal-to-the-metal technical virtuosity and raw power. (In researching this piece, I discovered that Sibelius' first language was Swedish, and that the few of his songs that are not in Swedish are in German. Hunh. Huedathunquet.)