Pianist Peter Schaaf should be encouraged to bring us “Act 3”
First things first: File this review under “better late than never.” I received this new and intriguing recording in the fall, with every intention of reviewing it well before the holidays. Here’s hoping some readers will buy this for themselves—and find a good reason to give a copy as a gift in the very near future.
While the disc itself proves, upon repeated hearings, to offer ongoing delights and the occasional revelation, pianist Peter Schaaf’s own story is deserving of a posting on its own. Schaaf started out as a pianist, and ended up with quite a track record: studies at Juilliard eventually led to accompanying the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Renata Tebaldi, and a still in-print recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise with Jon Vickers. A shift in careers to photography was no less successful, with his work being seen in The New York Times, Time and People magazine, among other places.
Happily for lovers of thoughtful piano playing, Schaaf unexpectedly returned to the keyboard in 2008, tackling for the first time Albeniz’s epic Iberia. Schaaf put it on disc in 2011, garnering both acclaim and airplay. His next inspiration for what he calls Act 2 of his resurrected career was a real rarity, the Op. 54 Waltzes of Dvorak. These eight gems proved the impetus for Schaaf to craft a program that included them with Schubert’s Valse Nobles, D. 969, Brahms’ Waltzes, Op. 39 and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Add them all up, and we get a 72-minute traversal of 44 waltzes, some familiar delights swirling amongst new discoveries.
Schaaf opens the disc with the Schubert, and for yours truly these were fresh discoveries. For a composer who could improvise a waltz (not to mention any other number of forms) as naturally as breathing, he made time to jot down a hundred or so. But the D. 969 group is from the last months of his life, and while they don’t cast any looming shadows of presentiment of his early demise, they are still a little more substantial than more youthful examples. If you don’t listen while following the track listings, you may be surprised to suddenly find yourself in the world of Brahms: The entire dozen of Schubert’s set average less than a minute each, coming in at 11:44! Schaaf gives the miniatures clean, gently nuanced readings.
These qualities are carried over into the more familiar Brahms, Op. 39 Waltzes, with Schaaf bringing a welcome clarity, at times even a transparency to a composer often chided for thick, muddy writing (keyboard or orchestral). Of course, “everyone” has heard No. 15; Schaaf happily eschews any overt sentimentality or arbitrary inflections as if to make it “fresh.”
I was particularly eager to hear the eight Dvorak waltzes, as many years ago I had encountered Nos. 1 and 4 in a transcription for string quartet. Somehow I never bothered to discover where the rest were (or even knew that the originals were for solo piano). Schaaf has done all Dvorak lovers a great service by giving us a new and vibrant record of these gems. They actually form the longest segment of the disc, running over 25 minutes; it wasn’t hard to fall in love with all of them, just as that first pair had beguiled me long ago.
As for the Ravel, Schaaf’s technique is clean in a way that makes the interpretation unfussy. More than once on this disc, Schaaf gives us evidence that as a pianist he is of the “less is more” school. There is never any lack of technical command per se, but Schaaf is consistently more concerned with the application of virtuosity at the service of the music— which is of course what every artist is really about. We can only hope that Schaaf continues his late sequel of a career, and gives us some more piano music from the roads less traveled by.
His press release contains the following generous information: “Mr. Schaaf is making this recording available FREE for streaming on his website and on SoundCloud, and for purchase from Amazon. Com, CDBaby.com, and from his website, www.SchaafRecords.com. The recording is being released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 License, which permits noncommercial copying and sharing of the tracks.”