in: Reviews

September 12, 2010

Finehouse on Frederick Collection’s Tröndlin an Alignment of Stars

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For his return engagement on September 12 at the start of the 27th fall season of the Frederick Collection concerts, Boston-based pianist Constantine Finehouse chose from among approximately two-dozen historic, mostly European grand pianos the same instrument that was used in the spring season’s closing recital: the ca. 1830 Tröndlin. In a slight variation from the series’ general aim of offering music contemporary with the date of the instrument’s manufacture, he chose music dating as far back as 35 years earlier, but the instrument suited it all well, and it would, after all, have been played on Tröndlins when it was presented in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus in the mid-19th century.

In these concerts, the instrument is as much the star as its player, so a few words must be said about it. Although made in Leipzig, this product is not truly a German piano, because its maker, Johann Nepomuk Tröndlin, studied piano building in Southern Germany and Vienna and built his instruments following the Viennese model in the style of makers such as Conrad Graf (one of whose products from ca. 1823 Beethoven owned at the end of his life; it is now in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn). Tröndlin began his career by running the piano building division of Breitkopf und Härtel, music publishing firm still in existence, from 1821 to 1824, and then established his own firm, which he sold in 1855; it closed around 1864. Mendelssohn favored Tröndlins, and they were therefore the piano in the Gewandhaus for some years into the 1860s. Only 12 to 15 remain today; the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Foundation began a campaign in 2009 to secure and restore to playing condition (it has been well maintained) one from the same time period for the Mendelssohn-Haus in Leipzig. A Tröndlin identical to the Frederick’s is now in the Grassi Musical Instrument Museum of the University of Leipzig; you can view it here. It was pictured on the reverse of the 100 DM note (with a reproduction of a lithograph portrait of Clara Schumann, who owned one, on its face) that was in circulation when the switch to the Euro occurred; you can view it here. Jos van Immerseel owns one from ca. 1835 that was restored in 1996, and in the late 1990s recorded on the SONY Classical label the Schubert Piano Trios 1 and 2, the “Trout” Quintet, and the Arpeggione Sonata using it. You can find views of the Frederick’s Tröndlin here.

Finehouse opened with Schubert’s Sonata No. 15 in C, D. 840, “Reliquie” (Relics), begun in 1825 and whose third and fourth movements are incomplete; only the central Trio section of the third is finished, and the remainder of both is mere fragments. Several completions have been composed over the years, including one by pianist and early instrument specialist Paul Badura-Skoda, one by pianist Brian Newbould, and one by pianist and composer William Bolcom, written in 1993, which is the one Finehouse played. The work, like a number of the composer’s later sonatas, is monumental in length, but this one is noticeably less upbeat and melodic than the final two, D. 959 and D. 960. Unlike most sonatas, the 15th opens with a slow movement marked Moderato that has the barest bones of a melodic line. This is followed by the customary slow movement marked Andante with an equally slight melody. Only the final two incomplete movements follow the more customary tempi, marked Menuetto: Allegretto and Rondo: Allegro; nothing ever approaches Presto. The Bolcom completion felt seamless, subtly referencing earlier material; he seems to have succeeded in getting into Schubert’s mind. The performance, a true endurance test and played from a score, was superb.

After the pause, Finehouse offered two Beethoven works, both played from memory, beginning with his Sonata in F, Op. 2/1, composed in 1795. This performance was an exquisite gem, one of those moments when music, musician, and instrument align like stars to shine more brilliantly than any would alone, making insignificant the 35-year time lapse between the composition and instrument manufacture dates. The afternoon concluded with Beethoven’s Thirty-two Variations in C, WoO 80, composed in 1806, the lightest of the works on the program, and as skillfully and brightly played as the preceding sonata.

Finehouse is a gifted and talented musician and clearly a perfectionist, generally appearing to attain his goal. Boston-area music lovers are fortunate to have numerous occasions to hear him in recital as soloist and with his various performing partners on other instruments, such as the violin and the cello. He is also recording all the piano music of William Bolcom, with whom he consequently has a close connection, for Naxos. He will therefore record the Schubert D. 840 Sonata with Bolcom’s completion for the label, and Klaus Heymann should find the way to go the extra mile and fund that recording on this fine and rare instrument (perhaps the only one in the Western hemisphere?).

Editor’s Note: Four concerts remain in the Fall 2010 series at the Frederick Collection. The listings are here.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009.

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