The liner notes to this recording consist of a short story by Guy de Maupassant. It’s actually a charming story about a “rather sad” law student in Paris who enjoys early morning walks in a little “forgotten” section of the Luxembourg Gardens, where he meets a “strange little old man”, who turns out to be a former dancing-master at the Opéra. “Tell me,” the student asks, “what was the minuet?” After the dance-master declares that, since there is no longer any royalty there is no longer any minuet (which was “the dance of queens”), he delivers a unique, private performance of a minuet in the garden, accompanied by his wife, La Castris, a legendary Paris dancer.
What exactly are we supposed to do with this story? Read it as we listen to the recording? There is no information regarding the music other than a track listing, with titles and composer names. We even have to do a little searching to find the name of the solo performer, pianist Alessandro Stella. Well, ultimately it doesn’t really matter: you will fully enjoy just listening, without a cute story, or even necessarily knowing what the individual musical selections are, or, dare I say, who the pianist is. This program, whose aim is to celebrate “the art of the regal dance” (i.e., the minuet), succeeds by not calling particular attention to any one aspect of the production. It just rolls composers, works, and performer into one 45-minute set of 21 pieces, featuring practically every composer you care about, from Handel, Brahms, and Bach, to Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Ravel, Dvorák, Schubert, Scarlatti, and, yes, even Barber, Purcell, Rameau, and Couperin!
Most of the pieces are between one and two minutes–and part of the program’s success is that there’s diversity in the styles and settings: and you don’t always hear an obvious “minuet” unfolding; just a pleasing piano piece that freely and easily follows the previous one. And, no offense to Alessandro Stella, but these are not works that require a virtuoso–only a technically accomplished performer who, like the dancers in Maupassant’s story, cares for the art–and the artifice; the refined manner of movement, the absolute faithfulness to clarity and gracefulness of line, the metrical swell and fall. Stella and his chosen composers are in agreement, and you will be too. Here is one of those program ideas that could have gone wrong–but instead makes a listener glad for the experience.