A CD cleverly titled 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys gives pianist Peter Schaaf the unusual opportunity to present waltzes in easy-to-compare-and-contrast groups: a brief “Schubert group” and somewhat longer groupings by Brahms, Dvořák and Ravel. The result is a fascinating overview of the waltz from the early 19th century to the early 20th, albeit without material from the Viennese waltz masters (it is worth remembering Brahms’ famous autograph of the first few bars of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube: “Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms”). The 12-waltz Schubert set, written in 1828, near the end of the composer’s life, sparkles: most of these little gems run less than a minute and only one is longer than two minutes, yet within their brief compass they tantalizingly inveigle themselves into the ear, evanescing almost as soon as they start. They are trifles, true, but highly charming ones, and Schaaf’s delicate touch fits them wonderfully. The 16 Brahms waltzes date to 1865 and were a direct tribute the Viennese waltz, with one of them, in A-flat, becoming highly popular on its own, if not quite at Blue Danube level. These are also short works—once again, only a single one lasts more than two minutes—but they have plenty of lilt and rhythmic panache. Schaaf plays the more difficult of the two solo-piano versions that Brahms made, but no strain is evident in his performance: everything flows smoothly, and the contrasts among the works—seven of which are in minor keys, scarcely the norm for waltzes—come through especially well. The real find on this disc is the eight-waltz group by Dvořák, which dates to 1879 and is rarely heard. Anyone listening to Schaaf’s performance will wonder why. These are significantly more substantial works than those of Schubert or Brahms, filled with mood and tempo contrasts and containing distinct Slavonic elements. Three of the eight are in minor keys, and it is tempting to see this set as somehow tied to Brahms’ Op. 39, just as Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are tied to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. But the comparison in this case is inconsequential: the Dvořák waltzes set their own standards and their own moods, and their harmonies are quite different from those of Brahms. Perhaps it is their musical complexity that has kept them from popularity—they have more depth than the pleasant but rather superficial Schubert and Brahms sets—but Schaaf’s warmly knowing performance argues strongly that these pieces deserve more-frequent hearing. After all these delights, Ravel’s set of eight Valses nobles et sentimentales is a bit of a letdown. Dating to 1911, these works clearly come from a different age, a time when the waltz was already a trifle faded, if not yet the symbol of a bygone era that Ravel made it after World War I in his La Valse. Mostly concise in expression except for the final, slow, extended work in G, the Valses nobles et sentimentales seem, somewhat paradoxically, to be frozen in their time in a way that the sets by Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák do not. Schaaf plays the Ravel with as much skill and understanding as he brings to the other waltz sequences—it is just that this final waltz series comes from a very different set of sensibilities, making it a bit out of keeping with the rest of the music here. Given Schaaf’s exemplary pianism, though, it is possible just to sit back and enjoy the entire disc, ignoring any philosophical musings.

MARK ESTREN, infodad.com
December 01, 2016