Stimme aus der Ferne (A Voice from the Distance), Andrea Botticelli, fortepiano (Rodney Regier, 1830s Viennese by Conrad Graf, 2014 [photo on the inside of the sleeve]), owned by Banff Centre For Arts and Creativity, Carl Czerny (1791-1857), Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op. 33, Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Sonata in A, D. 664, Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896), Soirées musicales, Op. 6, No. II, Notturno, Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Papillons, Op. 2, Novelletten, Op. 21, No. VIII; Personal label 01, © 2021, TT 65:32, Available from Amazon, $18.00.

Claude Debussy: Images: Estampes, Images, 1ère et 2ème séries, Masques, D’un cahier d’esquisses, L’Isle joyeuse, Mathilde Handelsman, piano (Steinway D, 1875 [photo in the booklet]), Sheva Collection Ltd, (no No.) © 2019, TT 61:57, Available direct, $20.00.

Listings are in alphabetical/bibliographical, not chronological or performance order.

Both of these recordings use period instruments – Stimme aus der Ferne identifies them as such in the program notes, and Claude Debussy: Images: Estampes is recorded on an 1875 Steinway, as noted on the website. I am known for preferring historically-informed instruments in recordings (see my multi-part article about the five great French pianist-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), because they are more musical, nuanced, and have greater distinction among the registers. Period instruments are richer and warmer than modern ones, which are designed for power and uniformity; it takes some “getting used to” for some listeners, but it is enormously rewarding. In addition, the listening experience is made more authentic, thanks to the knowledge that this was the sound the composers were hearing and imagining as they wrote.

I have a serious doubt that Debussy ever played a Steinway, though a few were available in Paris during his lifetime. (A specific one is mentioned in my article, but to my knowledge, Debussy never played it, because he did not frequent that private salon.) He played mostly Érards and Pleyels in public, and in 1905 bought a 1904 Blüthner that had a unique set of strings called the Aliquot system, which resonated sympathetically with those struck by the hammers. Debussy’s instrument is still around, but not in Paris, because it was moved to South-central France by his heirs during the Nazi occupation to prevent its falling into their hands. The Steinway that Mathilde Handelsman plays has a more expressive sound with greater variety across the registers than the modern ones, and is less overpowering as well. It works well for this music, all of which was composed between 1903 and 1907, at the very time when Debussy was meeting and acquiring his own Blüthner.

I have met Rodney Regier, and heard several of his instruments “in the flesh,” and they are of first class quality and sound, and produce one similar to that of the original Grafs. Some of Graf’s original pianos are still around – I’ve heard them both in person and on recordings. Both Schubert and the Schumanns owned Graf instruments; the Schumanns’ was a wedding gift from the maker. Clara gave it to Johannes Brahms after Robert’s death, and it resides in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna today. I know nothing about what Czerny owned, but he surely played Grafs – Graf’s instruments were considered the best and were the most numerous in Vienna in Czerny’s time. Beethoven owned one as well, and it is now in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.

Replicas of Graf instruments are now fairly common, many made by Paul McNulty, an American who lives in the Czech Republic. I helped uncover the whereabouts of one from 1819 after a change of ownership some years ago. I know two pianists who have one, and the Chopin Institute in Warsaw has one that was used in its International Chopin Competition in 2018; they are almost as prized as originals. Botticelli owns an original from 1835, restored by one of the finest restorers today, Edwin Beunk, in Enshede, the Netherlands.

Botticelli’s program is broad and varied, but carefully planned. It includes both chestnuts and lesser known works, so it offers a wider spectrum; Handelsman’s program offers a more concentrated focus on a specific period and style/type of the composer’s oeuvre, so the two albums complement each other in that respect as well as chronologically. Both performers obviously put a lot of research, thought, and time into the planning of their programs and the writing of their program notes. Both are enormously enjoyable to hear, and very well played, with good handling of the expression and instruments – they cannot be handled like modern Steinways, and require greater control and nuancing. If any negative criticism can be made, it’s that both are occasionally a wee bit too heavy on the keys, but age and further practice will iron that out naturally. Botticelli is Canadian; Handelsman, born in Paris, now lives in the USA. These are début CDs for both, and both are excellent introductions to their superior art and skills, and offer fine additions to the listener’s collection. The only problem is choosing just one – believe me, I have numerous recordings of this music, both on period and modern instruments, going back decades to the beginning of CDs.

I am all in favor of musicians issuing their own recordings, and keeping the predatory, profit-driven, major-label corporations out of the marketing process. However, if they do so, they need to be sure to visibly include all the information the discriminating potential buyer needs and wants to know (having worked in classical music retail, I know that customers come in all flavors and levels of knowledge). Before shelling out his or her money, the buyer should be able to read information in the CD’s accompanying booklet, on the outside face of the tray card, or on the sleeve, if the jewel case is avoided. (I believe that the jewel case, with its brittle, fragile, non-biodegradable, unrecyclable, and unrepairable plastic, is the most un-precious, unsatisfactory packaging for recorded music ever devised and forced upon the customer!) Some independent album producers who cater to musicians are also guilty, albeit generally less so, of leaving some important information out. On the other hand, the non-repetition of the list of works that is on the outside in the accompanying booklet is wise and appreciated.

When creating a recording, musicians have to remember that they are producing a product as well as a performance; both aspects need to be impeccable for their best chance at success and longevity. Both of these CDs, wonderful as they are in the performances of the music and for the listeners’ ears, are missing items of information in their documentation, all of which (except the individual track timings, essential for DJs who are choosing items to broadcast on the air) I have supplied in this review. In spite of this deficiency, I can, and do, heartily recommend both superb recordings! Why choose?