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 Recording of the Week  Works for Pedal Piano by Gounod

Something of a novelty this week, as Hyperion reaches the 62nd volume in its series, The Romantic Piano Concerto, the seemingly limitless trove of forgotten gems of the 19th and early 20th-century piano concerto repertoire. The twist with this one is that it's actually a recording of four pieces that the French composer, Charles Gounod, wrote for pedal piano and orchestra.

Roberto Prosseda and the pedal piano
Roberto Prosseda and the pedal piano

Yes, you read that correctly: a pedal piano! Principally developed in France in the nineteenth century to enable organists to practise outside church, the modern instrument as used by Roberto Prosseda on this recording essentially consists of a second piano removed from its legs and placed on the floor, which is then attached to a pedal mechanism connected to the lowest 61 notes, enabling them to be played by the performer’s feet.

The instrument attracted attention from composers as illustrious as Schumann, Liszt, and Alkan, and, as you can see from the accompanying image, was clearly as appealing for its visual spectacle as much as it was for the virtuosity of the performer. One of the more popular pedal pianists in the salons of 19th-century France was a young lady by the name of Lucie Palicot, and one contemporary commentator recalled the spectacle of a concert she performed in 1882 thus:

“I remember what a strange impression was produced by the sight of this graceful and dainty person perched on a huge case containing the lower strings of the pedal-board beneath a grand piano; what surprised us above all, pleasantly enough to be sure, was to see Mme Palicot wearing a short knee-length skirt (entirely necessary, but astonishing in those days), and her pretty legs darting most adroitly to reach the different pedals of the keyboard she had at her feet.”

Well, Prosseda may have ditched the knee-length skirt, but there’s certainly no shortage of adroit pedal-work! The main piece on the disc is the Concerto for pedal piano in E flat major, unpublished in Gounod’s lifetime but championed by the aforementioned Mme Palicot. It’s clear from the outset that Gounod wanted to show off the pedal board much more than in his previous pieces for the instrument, as after a brief orchestral introduction we’re launched straight into a virtuoso pedal passage that really shows off Prosseda’s mastery of the instrument.

Perhaps the highlight for me was the slow movement, a melancholy Adagio which sounded to me like a cross between a funeral march and a slow tango, giving way to a lyrical melody which is surely worthy of Rachmaninov in terms of its heart-tugging emotion.

The second substantial piece is the Suite concertante in A major, an earlier work than the concerto. It has a really exciting second movement, entitled Chasse, and its vigorous horns and furious piano figurations evoking the hunt contrast with another theme of great beauty, sensitively played by Prosseda. His passage-work is again immaculate: as in the opening to the concerto, his feet are certainly given a good workout in some of the more elaborate arpeggios required of him!

Also on the disc is is the Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe, based on God Save the Tsar. This melody was the official anthem of the Russian Empire from 1833 to 1917, and I imagine is most familiar through its use in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It’s here that the added weight enabled by the pedals, with its extra octave doublings, really makes a difference, giving a lovely sonority and richness to the piano’s opening statement of the theme.

Throughout the disc, Prosseda is given wonderful support from conductor Howard Shelley, who draws warm, expressive playing from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve not come across the pedal piano before and are intrigued by the notion. Long may the series continue!

The Romantic Piano Concerto 62 - Gounod

The complete works for pedal piano & orchestra

Roberto Prosseda (pedal piano), Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Howard Shelley

Available Format: CD