studer legacy claves

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2008 and the recording is still available.

Michael Studer (piano)
The Legacy
rec. 1971-1995
Claves 50-2713-18 [6 CDs: 440]

Six CDs for the price of one? Never mind bargain of the month, this has to be one of the bargains of the year. I am ashamed to say that, until now, I had never heard any recordings by Michael Studer. The aim of this super low-price box is, as Claves freely admit, “our manner of making it possible for broader audiences to make the acquaintance of a truly extraordinary musician”, and as such it deserves to succeed with ease. (Ed. 2023 – please note that the CD boxset is no longer available; the recordings can be purchased as downloads, but are not super-budget)

The first disc has some sublime Bach performances, and it was in fact the merest snippet of a sample from the Claves website that had my ears twitching. ‘Here’ I thought, ‘is something special’, and my instincts proved correct. Studer’s approach is ‘modern’, in the sense that he makes no attempt to turn the piano into a turbo-driven harpsichord. The playing is restrained, the ornaments kept to a healthy minimum, but without any of the mannerisms which might invite comparison with the ubiquitous Glenn Gould. Nor are there any extravagant eccentricities – just the assured touch of a master who knows where to add just enough magic, and where to let the music speak for itself.

Disc 2, previously released as Claves CLF 710-9, has three Mozart concertos, all of which sound very good indeed in their rich church acoustics. The balance of the piano is a little close against that of the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, which in turn sounds rather more refined than that of Tibor Varga, in which the strings colour the sound with a rather up-front and vibrato laden texture – something which plagues the Andantino of K271 rather badly. This is a minor quibble in general however, as most of the accompaniment is sensitive enough. Studer’s Mozart is like opening the door into a secret walled garden, whose interior is filled with all kinds of delights – sparkling fountains, elegant and playful sculptures which peep from behind artfully places plants which wave like old friends in the breeze. With ne’er a phrase out of place or a line lost and bereft of meaning, one can easily become lost in such performances, daylight passing to darkness unheeded.

The third disc brings us some refreshingly masculine Haydn, in which Studer manages to tease out just about every pinch of humour in the faster movements of the Piano Sonata in E-flat major. The piano sounds lighter in this recording – sometimes almost approaching a fortepiano colouration in the mid and upper registers. Studer conjures warmth and expression where required however, and the contrasts in mood are quite startling if you can follow Haydn’s twists and turns, which can be quite breathtaking. Studer never gives us a break from the torrent of invention from the composer, who rarely sounded as modern as this to my ears.

With Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Op.17 we finally hit on some true romanticism. With a different kind of torrent of notes, it is however immediately and acutely apparent that Studer’s approach is very much within the narrative of the music – a song without words, and filled with as much drama and emotion as can be mustered without the added power of the human voice. The lighter, more overtly pianistic qualities of the Abegg-Variations come as a welcome break, and the dancing Papillons are filled with depths of uncertain joy – another magical recording.

CD number four is Michael Studer’s last recording, made in 1999 for Müller & Schade, and just before he retired from performing and recording due to an irreversible auditory affliction. Dedicated entirely to Chopin, Studer’s interpretations are imposing and defiant. To my ears, he sees the Polish revolutionary, uncompromising and dedicated, rather than romantic and sentimental. In this way his playing is comparable with Evgeni Kissin: striking and individual, but allowing the composer’s message to come across undistorted. There is certainly no sense of failing technique, and if anything the recital might seem to veer a little too far towards the indomitable. Then you get the infinite tenderness of a piece like the Berceuse Op.57, which is given a timeless quality, layered with tenderness and affection – a genuine farewell.

This, however, is not where the story ends – not by a long way. Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.2 appears here in a live performance, and, aside from the occasional cough and splutter here and there, sounding very good indeed. There are a few strained sounding wind solos, but the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra is generally well up to the job, and Michael Studer revels in the mountainous piano part, extracting drama and melodic expressiveness and displaying incredible technique the whole way through. This and the live recording of Ravel’s Concerto in G come from the archives of Radio Suisse Romande, an stand as a testament to Studer’s amazing abilities as a stage performer. The Suisse Romande Orchestra has a few problems with the Ravel Concerto and there are some surprisingly rough moments, but with some hair-raising tempi I suspect most orchestras would be pretty much on the edge at this pace. The performance has a high-energy quality and Studer’s affinity with the music is beyond question, but if this were a single disc I’m sure we would consider it more of a souvenir of the great man rather than the best of the bunch with this work. The gorgeous slow movement shows Studer’s ability to pluck emotion from Ravel’s quasi-banality: the slight dip at around 1:30-40 and the long awaited rubato at 2:40 in are just enough to draw a sigh from even the most hardened of listeners.

Some of the remaining solo works come from recordings released on LPs by the pianist himself on his ‘Luna’ label during the 1970’s, and some tracks have clearly been mastered from the vinyl rather than tape. The sound quality is good enough for these tracks, though hampered here and there by and electronic buzz on the left channel, which I suppose must be an artefact from the original recordings or pressings. There are some ticks from the surface, but most of the music is mercifully free of distortion. Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody receives a very strong performance here, and one can sense the joy in the music and the ambition of the pianist leaping from the grooves. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is one of the works for which Studer became justly recognised as the great musician he is, and we can be grateful that at least this one mesmerising recording survives from this early period of his recording career. The same goes for Debussy’s Images and L’isle joyeuse, though badly marred by that left channel buzz in the quiet passages.

The Brahms recordings are from 1995, and Studer mentions in his own notes how the selection of the pieces is based on a personal interpretation of the order and selection of the pieces from Opp. 116, 117 and 118. Rather than clinging to the published order, this sequence is based on a feel for key and variety of character. This works extremely well in my opinion, and this little nest of pieces is an object lesson for students and professionals alike, making a magical recital in its own right. The Rachmaninov works were chosen using the same criteria as for the Brahms, “they depict the whole gamut of the emotions, from the highest bliss to the deepest melancholy.” Studer’s effortless technique gives all of these works a natural clarity: they are never strangled by over emphasis or over-interpretation. Each piece is given an obvious, ‘see? like this…’ answer to the questions posed, the message of the composer served with a perfect dressing, crisp or tender, like a very good meal indeed.

Claves has done an excellent job of catalogue trawling to bring us this comprehensive and highly enjoyable overview of Michael Studer’s recorded and concert legacy. At well over 7 hours playing time I would tell anyone to quit quibbling and just go out and buy this box. This set is worth it for the sublime simplicity of Studer’s Bach alone, but summing up, just about everything here is top notch music making. The only downsides are slight compromises with the re-mastered early recordings, and the occasionally dated or wobbly ‘live’ orchestras – the upside being, where else are you going to find these recordings? I have deliberately avoided much comparison with existing versions of the works presented here. Claves are giving away so much of this for ‘free’ that it would seem churlish to heap any commentary with more expensive alternatives, and besides, I’m not sure there are many recordings or performances of these works that I would actually prefer to the ones in this set. Olivier Verry in his introduction to the booklet notes rightly brings up the name of Dinu Lipatti in comparison with Michael Studer, and the same things which constantly bring us back to Lipatti will bring you back to Studer on a frequent basis. If you long for the kind of expressive subtlety brought out of a virtuosity of intelligence and respect for the composer rather than as display of the ego of the performer, then you will have come to the right place with this collection.

Dominy Clements

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CD 1 [65:12]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita I in B-flat Major, BWV 825 [18:02]
Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971 [13:25]
English Suite II in A Minor, BWV 807 [18:49]
French Suite VI in E Major, BWV 817 [14:21]
CD 2 [79:15]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271 (‘Jeunehomme’) [31:49]
Piano Concerto No. 11 in F Major, K. 413 [22:19]
Piano Concerto No. 12 in G Major, K. 414 [24:35]
CD 3 [75:23]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:52 (pub.1778) [20:02]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17 (1836) [31:57]
Abegg-Variations, Op. 1 [8:01]
Papillons, Op. 2 [14:48]
CD 4 [77:00]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantasy-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, Op. Posth. 66 [5:04]
Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39 [7:18]
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 [8:42]
Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 [10:32]
Etude in A-sharp Major, Op. 25 No. 1 [2:24]
Etude in F Minor, Op. 25 No. 2 [1:19]
Etude in F Major, Op. 10 No. 8 [2:23]
Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34 No. 2 [5:21]
Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64 No. 2 [3:08]
Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64 No. 1 [1:51]
Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49 [11:47]
Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62 No. 1 [7:45]
Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2 [3:28]
Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57 4:53]
CD 5 [78:59]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22 [22:26]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Spanish Rhapsody, S. 254 [13:00]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Capriccio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 116 [2:07]
Intermezzo No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 118 [1:58]
Intermezzo No. 2 in A Major, Op. 118 [5:34]
Capriccio No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 116 [3:19]
Intermezzo No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 117 [4:52]
Capriccio No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 116 [2:15]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prélude No. 8 in A-flat Major, Op. 23 [3:19]
Prélude No. 12 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 32 [2:22]
Etude Tableau No. 6 in E-flat Minor, Op. 33 [1:47]
Etude Tableau No. 3 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 39 [3:16]
Prélude No. 4 in D Major, Op. 23 4:42]
Etude Tableau No. 2 in C Major, Op. 33 [2:13]
Etude Tableau No. 5 in E-flat Minor, Op. 39 [5:22]
CD6 [64:10]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G Major [21:30]
Gaspard de la nuit [20:53]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images – Livre Ier [15:18]
L’Isle joyeuse [5:52]  

Chamber Orchestra Tibor Varga/Tibor Varga (Mozart k271)
Chamber Orchestra Cologne/Helmut Müller-Brühl (Mozart k413, k414)
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Fritz Rieger (Saint-Saens)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Wolfgang Sawallisch (Ravel concerto in g major)
Berne Conservatory, 1987 (Bach), June 1990, (Schumann), 1995 (Haydn, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Brahms), Martinskirche in Basel, 1971 (Ravel, Gapard, Debussy), 1972 (Mozart K271), 1974 (Liszt) Stadtkirche in Thun, 1977 (Mozart K413, K414). Live recordings, Theatre de Beaulieu, 9 February 1976 (Saint-Saens), Lausanne, 5 September 1979 (Ravel Concerto)