in: Reviews

September 5, 2011

Yi-Heng Yang Débuts the Frederick’s Brodmann


ca. 1800 Jos. Brodmann (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

For her second appearance (I also reviewed her début  here) on The Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts Series in Ashburnham on September 4, Taiwanese-American pianist Yi-Heng Yang chose one of the Collection’s earliest instruments, made in Vienna ca. 1800-1805 by Joseph Brodmann . Born in Eichswald in Prussia in 1771, Brodmann moved to Vienna where he became a citizen and died of pleurisy on May 13, 1848. Although he did not pass his business on to a descendant, he did pass on his knowledge and expertise. Ignaz Bösendorfer (1794-1859) apprenticed with him beginning in 1813 before opening his own firm around 1826 and buying Brodmann’s when the latter sold it in 1828, although Brodmann continued to build instruments at least until 1832 when he relinquished his permit, and perhaps illicitly even beyond that date. Bösendorfer identified himself as “Brodmann’s pupil” on his early instruments, one of which is also in the Frederick Collection; scroll down to see the nameplate. The Bösendorfer firm still exists, although it no longer belongs to Ignaz’s descendants; in 1966, it was taken over by the Jasper Corporation (Kimball pianos), and since January 2008, it is owned by the Yamaha group.

Brodmann patented a number of innovations to the instrument, including a triple-laminated soundboard in 1829, and had been the first to place ribs above rather than below the soundboard; but, curiously for such a seemingly conscientious and meticulous businessman, he did not put serial numbers on his products. This can create uncertainties, because porcelain plaques such as the one identifying this one as made by “Joseph Brodmann – Bürger in Wien,” could be, and occasionally were, removed from their instrument and affixed to one by an unscrupulous and inferior builder in order to generate a greater profit. This piano, definitely his, has a 5.5-octave compass keyboard (FF – c4) and its mahogany case measures a bit over 7′ in length. It does not have pedals, but rather two knee levers, moderator and damper, the former no longer operable. Knee levers require the reverse movement from pedals, raising the heel instead of depressing the toes, and Yang needed some pieces of wood under her foot for her knee to be in the proper position. This is one of the techniques significantly different from those required to play a modern instrument.

The Brodmann has the typical “Viennese” action, developed in Augsburg by Johann Andreas Stein, whose daughter, Nannette Stein Streicher moved that firm to Vienna in 1794, hence its technically inaccurate name. While Mozart wrote very highly about Stein’s instruments, Carl Maria von Weber liked Brodmann’s and owned one made ca. 1810, still extant, although he also bought a Streicher when he bought the Brodmann, according to an 1813 letter to his brother. The Clinkscale Online [] inventory of early pianos (1790-1860), lists twenty-five Brodmann instruments —not all of them grands— known to remain. Only two are in the US, and the exact current location and owner of the second is unknown; its existence is documented by a listing with a photo in a 1993 auction catalogue published in San Francisco.

Like modern pianos, this one has white naturals (covered with cow bone rather than ivory) and black accidentals, a format that did not become standard until ca. 1811. Many harpsichords had reverse colored keys, and some early pianos, like the Frederick Collection’s Katholnig, followed that precedent. Readers unfamiliar with very early pianos such as this one may not realize that their keys are physically more like those of harpsichords, narrower, shorter, and with a lesser depth of travel when depressed to trigger the mechanism than those of modern instruments. Playing technique is therefore very different: the wrist and fingers are held in a more bent position and less effort is required to produce the sound, which is also less powerful than that of a modern piano.

Yang prepared a carefully crafted and very satisfying program of chestnuts of the repertoire and works rarely or nearly never played by various composers, which appropriately either preceded or coincided with the date of the instrument’s manufacture, were representative of the times, and which she characterized as ”virtuosity from the Classical era.” She played all the works from scores, but often with her eyes closed, taking only occasional glances at the music. She opened this concert with Mozart’s, 10 Variations in G on Gluck’s “Unser dummer Pöbel meint,” K.455 (1784), an excellent choice with which to begin, because this type of piece allows the pianist to demonstrate the potential of the instrument and its varieties of color and range of dynamics without calling for many pyrotechnics, plenty of which were to come later. It is an aria sung by a priest in the comic opera, The Pilgrims of Mecca (1763), something of a satire on monks enjoying the good life, drinking it up in the basement of the monastery. The work originated, according to Yang in her spoken program comments, as an improvisation that Mozart played for Gluck, with which he expressed delight, so Mozart wrote it down.

This was followed by the relatively brief Fantasia in A, Wq. 59/6 (H 284, 1784) by C.P.E. Bach that featured some arrhythmical gestures, then the  Sonata No. 8 in a, K.310 (1778) by Mozart, his sole major work in this key, whose presto movement offered some of the aforementioned pyrotechnics. This was Mozart’s first sonata to fully exploit the potential of the then new instrument, and he gave a much greater role than in earlier ones to the left hand, which carries the melody at times. Yang played it masterfully, although she chose not to play the repeats in the first and third movements.

The second half, which Yang played without offering any comments, was similarly built, opening with Jan Ladislav Dussek’s “‘Within a Mile of Edinburgh,’ a Scotch Song with Variations for the Pianoforte or Harpsichord” in Bflat, Craw 101 (1790s (?), published in Dublin). Dussek was among the composers living in Paris who sought safety in the British Isles to escape the dangers and turmoil of the French Revolution; he lived in London 1789-99.  The work belongs to the craze that swept Europe in the last decade of the eighteenth and first decade of the nineteenth centuries for arrangements by classical composers of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditional tunes; hundreds were produced, some because the composers were attracted to the tunes, others because British publishers commissioned them. For example, Haydn arranged some 429, Beethoven some 151 for voice(s) and piano trio (with the option of accompaniment by piano alone).

Yi-Heng-Yang (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

The tunes captured the imaginations of the people on the continent because of their infectiousness, their novelty, and their rhythms that were different from those of the dominant Baroque dance ones previously used in suites and sonatas. This was a charming example of an alternative form without words, which Yang realized exquisitely. She followed it with Dussek’s Sonata in G, Op. 10/2, Craw 61, originally for keyboard and violin (1780s?). This piece in two dramatically contrasted movements was another delightful revelation, a particularly lovely though challenging gem that Yang played expertly. She concluded with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 in E-flat, Op. 27/1 “Sonata quasi una fantasia” (1800-01), the less frequently programmed but equally lovely companion to the contemporary No. 14, Op. 27/2, “Moonlight.” It provided an opportunity to display the instrument’s potential for ppp in its Adagio con espressione and brought the afternoon to a close with more pyrotechnics in its final Allegro vivace. On this instrument, as with all early Viennese ones, the rapid-fire notes remained clear, crisp, and distinct in spite of the lightening speed of Yang’s precise execution – How can she play that fast?! – and did not dissolve into mud. Yang did not reward her audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation applause with an encore, however.

Mike Frederick has worked hard on the instrument to bring it back and make it suitable for use in performance. Apparently, nearly all the keys produced some clacking noises when the Fredericks acquired it; a few still do in fff playing, but it’s a small distraction in the immense pleasure of hearing the warm, sweet, singing sounds in the upper register and those of the equally warm, but resonant bass register of a 210-year-old instrument and understanding what composers like Mozart, Dussek, and Beethoven were accustomed to hearing and for which they composed. Yang, who paid tribute to the Fredericks’ passion, was an excellent choice to début the instrument and handled it with amazing and impressive skill and sensitivity.

Readers can hear Mozart’s first five piano sonatas (K. 279-283, 1775) performed on this instrument by Artem Belogurov next Sunday, September 11, at 4:00 p.m.

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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