Only rarely does a CD like this come along—deceptively familiar repertoire played on a once appreciated but now entirely forgotten instrument. It is at least forty years since I first bought an LP of Lionel Rogg (or was it Gustav Leonhardt?) playing Bach’s C minor Passacaglia on the pedal-harpsichord, a radical departure for the era but almost mainstream nowadays. At the same time I was taking organ lessons, and my teacher owned a true exotic, a pedal-piano. Just as early eighteenth century organists might have used the pedal-harpsichord as a practice-instrument when an organ (or heater!) was unavailable, so nineteenth century organists presumably used the pedal-piano, although even then it was not a common instrument. In fact, the works of Alkan that the great Kevin Bowyer has recorded for organ were mostly intended for pedal-piano. Nonetheless, I do not recall in all my years of collecting discs of ever seeing another pedal-piano recital, or even another pedal-piano —it is the thylacine of instruments. Apparently there is one other CD available using the newer Doppio Borgato form.
Olivier Latry, best known for his recording of the complete Messiaen organ works on DG, debuts this wonderful instrument in characteristic repertoire: assorted chunky works by Alexandre Boëly, a Brahms Prelude and Fugue, a pair of Alkan Préludes, the Schumann Vier Skizzen which are more familiar on the organ, and two sizeable Liszt works—one the original version of the BACH Prelude and Fugue. His instrument on this CD is a gloriously sonorous 1853 Erard resembling the one owned by Alkan, which optimises the sense when listening of being engaged in time-travel. While I would not pretend that all, or indeed, much, of this music is truly great, the pleasure of hearing these archaic-sounding works on such a fine instrument is considerable. The effect of performing these works in this fashion is to deliberately blur the boundaries between organ and piano works; the composers were all notably fine pianists and organists—in the case of Alkan and Liszt, the very finest. Consequently there is absolutely no sense of these works being unidiomatic in their pedal-piano garb; organists practise fingered rubato, minimising the impact of the absent sustain pedal (no spare feet!). There can be no doubt, though, that while the other works are wonderfully endearing, the stand-out pieces here are the two huge Liszt pieces, the Évocation à la Chapelle Sixtine, a strange, pious work that manages to include a complete transcription of Mozart's Ave verum corpus within its compass, and the BACH Prelude and Fugue in its unfamiliar initial organ version, which is different again from both the revised organ and solo piano revisions that LIszt later made, making this performance a lovely, arcane musical pun, a reverse-engineered 'first piano version' of the piece.
Beyond the enjoyably nostalgic experience of hearing this wonderful old instrument in its native repertoire, there is much to relish in Latry’s astute program. Needless to say, his technique is more than a match for anything the pieces demand, even in the terrifyingly hard Liszt pieces, and he finds unexpected expressivity in what is often regarded as rather dry fare. I thoroughly enjoy this CD.