Peter Schaaf won the Kosciuszko Foundation’s Chopin Prize in 1961 and the Morris Loeb Prize from Juilliard in 1965. A student of iconic piano pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne, Schaaf performed with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, had a modest solo recital career, then went into accompanying and chamber music. He played many recitals with Yo-Yo Ma, including his New York recital debut in 1971. Schaaf also worked with Kyung-Wha Chung, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Renata Tebaldi, and Jon Vickers, with whom he made a recording on the VAI label of Schubert’s Die Winterreise from a 1983 Toronto performance (VAIA 1007-2). For several years he led the Archduke Trio. Equally renowned for his photography work, Schaaf now feels the urge to record more keyboard repertory.
The obvious addition to the standard “waltz repertory” comes in the form of the Dvořák Eight Waltzes, Op. 54, conceived somewhat abortively for a commission in 1879 for a grand ball in Prague. When Dvořák decided that these could not suit the dance music required, he set them aside for his Prague Waltzes. He then scored numbers one and four of Op. 54 for string quartet, which several conductors—like Vaclav Talich—performed in a string orchestra version. Peter Schaaf finds in these waltzes “warmth and humor,” and he plays them with persuasive affection. The first, in a minor, hints in the midst of its ternary form at the Mazurek, Op. 49. The folkish No. 2 in a shares many of its plunky, honky-tonk rhythms with Slavonic Dances. The aggressive E Major could be mistaken for Brahms, then Schubert. The No. 5 in g asks for dark-hued syncopations in Chopin’s salon style. No.6 in F Major, the longest of the set, projects much of Schubert’s felicity of style, melodically and harmonically. The d Minor, No. 7, reverts to the Brahms sonority, with a light counter-subject that frolics with Schubert’s good humor. The concluding E-flat Major dance projects a bravura character, the roulades pure Chopin, and the harmonic shifts and coda striking.
Schaaf admits that the Artur Rubinstein rendition of Ravel’s 1911 eight Valses nobles et sentimentales struck a deep chord. Schaaf likes their percussive, jazzy character, their often spare economy. The music bears an “idle aestheticism,” the pleasure of well-crafted form for its own sake. The glossy patina of the music ebbs and flows, often in harmonic parody of the Viennese style, the “wrong” notes biting gently at the ear with a sweet irony. The E Major of this group bears an aristocratic insouciance, ironically lyrical and touching. The rhythm of the opening G Major often infiltrates the other dances, a kind of affective leit-motif. The A Major hovers close to La Valse itself, but without its self-destructive mania. The final G Major provides perhaps the most “impressionistic” canvas, likewise serving as an epilogue. Schaaf accords this piece an intimate majesty, close in spirit to the hazy farewell scene in Ravel’s Mother Goose. Echoes of the primary rhythm mix with individual chords and colors to melt rather than to explode, a music-box that stutters a few riffs and tones, one of which might say “Rosebud.”
Both the Schubert and Brahms sets of waltzes roll easily off the keyboard, fluent and eminently stylistic. Schubert develops chains of lyrics, an inexhaustible fount of melodic invention that occasionally assumes the form of a German dance or laendler. Much of Schaaf’s performance of the Brahms set reminds me of former masters Leon Fleisher and Carl Seemann. Their Hungarian flavor touched by an elusive sense of tragedy typifies the Brahms style; of course, the A-flat Major No. 15 has assumed a separate identity. I found Schaaf’s rendition of the two E Major and g-sharp minor waltzes particularly affecting, and I look forward to more keyboard repertory in the hands of Mr. Schaaf.