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13 November 2018 Classicalsource.com

London, Royal Festival Hall, 14/11/2018, with London Philharmonic Orchestra

What an extraordinary concert. Rarely have I entered a hall with such a buzz going on around the stage, though one glance was enough to see what warranted such attention: the towering edifice that is a pedal piano. It’s like a Steinway smash up: one piano, with legs only knee-high under a second smaller piano supported by a wooden gantry at the back. At the keyboard end a large footplate of pedals connects to the lower keyboard. To all intents and purposes it looks like a double-decker piano.

Our soloist, Roberto Prosseda, who for the last seven years has made this instrument something of his speciality, implied that, as far as he knew, this marked the instrument’s debut in modern times in Britain.

Gounod’s Concerto for Pedal Piano and Orchestra is a four-movement work in the genial style of Saint-Saëns: I mused whether the solo part could be played on an organ (presumably). With busily buoyant outer movements, an ebullient Scherzo (placed second) and a sombre slow movement – heralded by a mournful horn refrain – this is very enjoyable music. Prosseda is a persuasive exponent of both instrument and piece and it was fascinating to see his nimble footwork – from the start, after a suitably bombastic orchestral introduction, the pedal piano’s first entry is for feet alone; and near the start of the Finale, there’s a sprightly fugue: right-hand first, then left, finally feet. Both as a performance and a spectacle this worked a treat, and there was no surprise that the enthusiastic reception resulted in an encore – the fourth of Schuman’s Canonic Études. Given the size of the team that took most of the interval to disassemble the instrument it’s not going to be a regular sight, but I’d certainly welcome another hearing.

Both orchestra and conductor made their mark, too, as they already had done in Messiaen’s Hymne, reconstructed from memory after the Second World War as the original score had been lost. It’s an effective ‘overture’; its second theme utilising a woodpecker call, and especially revelling in burnished colours in sound. It typified another invigorating programme offered in the LPO’s season – a French evening, given by Italians, which paired the unusual with the popular. 

Nick Breckenfield