in: Reviews

October 4, 2011

Junghwa Lee on Composers Who Played Erards

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For her first appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series, now in its 27th year, Korean pianist Junghwa Lee, associate professor of piano at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, chose the Collection’s 1877 Érard extra-grand modèle de concert. This is the same instrument used in the previous concert; readers can find details about it and the Érard company in my review of that performance here. She chose a program of music, which she played entirely from memory, by pianist-composers who played and owned Érards. Two of them, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), never owned any other make, composed for and on them, and played mostly Érards in public performances. Their last ones are still extant; you can view them: Ravel’s

The third, Franz Liszt (1811-1886), owned several during his lifetime and declared it his preferred make in his early concert-touring years, although he also liked to support the local piano makers in countries where he performed. He also played, owned, and composed on other makes, most if not all of them given to him by their builders, including a Boisselot  (a firm located in Marseille, 1830-ca. 1910, so its pianos were popular in Southern France, the Iberian peninsula, and Italy), two Chickerings (one from 1884, originally in his apartment in Rome, still extant in the Liszt Museum in Budapest, Bechsteins (one is extant in the Liszt Museum in Bayreuth; it was shown and played in NYC in 2008-09 here , Bösendorfers (one extant in Budapest), Broadwoods (including Beethoven’s), and a Steinway (originally in his Rome apartment, now in Bologna). Liszt’s last Érard, an 1862 model, privately owned, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC in 2001-02, but I have not been able to locate a photo of it online. All of them owned Érard models that were smaller than this one, but although smaller, their characteristics and tone would have been pretty much the same as this one’s, simply with less power.

Two somewhat contrasting Nocturnes by Fauré, Nos. 1 in E flat (ca. 1875) and 6 in D flat (1894) allowed Lee to display the instrument’s potential, range, and variety of the tonal colors in a moderately paced, steady, quieter mode, and brought out nuances and created lovely sounds, sometimes startlingly so, that one is not used to hearing in these pieces from Steinways in other concert and recital halls. These were followed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), his last composition for the piano, a tribute, according to the composer, to the French Baroque clavecinistes more than to Couperin alone – one wonders why, in view of his love of alliteration that was his stated reason for the title of Pavane pour une infant défunte he didn’t chose ‘Le Tombeau de Rameau’; perhaps he thought it was too much under the circumstances of its composition? It combines in a single six-movement work the traditional Prelude and Fugue that J.S. Bach so often used, which open the work, with the French dance suite, in this case three different rhythms: Forlane, Rigaudon, and Menuet, that Bach admired and used extensively, which follow, and concludes with a brilliant, fast, and virtuosic Toccata, another French Baroque music form also admired by Bach, as well as by the Late-Romantic French symphonic organ composers like Widor and Vierne. Each of its movements is dedicated to an acquaintance of Ravel’s who perished in WW I, the Toccata to Capt. Joseph de Marliave, husband of legendary pianist and friend of Ravel, Marguerite Long, who premièred the work. In many subsequent performances, she did not play that movement, claiming that she was no longer capable of doing it justice, but one wonders if there may have been a more personal unspoken reason involving memories that also entered into play. The tempos of the movements alternate regularly in a slow-fast pattern that also builds steadily, both in rhythm and in dynamics, to the climax of the whirlwind of notes and sound that is this Toccata. Again we heard nuances and sounds that do not show through on a Steinway because of its uniformity across the lower, middle, and upper registers that contrast with the Érard firm’s products which deliberately sought to preserve differences without exaggerating them and to make them blend harmoniously. I was particularly impressed with the Rigaudon, but felt that the Forlane could have been taken a bit slower, and I found the Menuet especially lovely and stately. Having heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet play all of Ravel’s piano music at Tanglewood (here), I could not help but recall that performance. Lee’s was equally fine, and the instrument far more revealing and more pleasing and satisfying. One other characteristic of pianos like these is that they are absolutely unforgiving: every error, even the most minute, stands out and looms large. I did not detect any from Lee.

After the intermission Lee played Liszt’s ca. 35-minute Sonata in B (1853) which is a single-movement work with three distinct sections, the second of which ends in a return to the opening material before the work takes off again in another different round to conclude yet again with the opening material and complete the journey. The tempo markings of the three sections: Lento assai – Allegro energico, Andante sostenuto, and Allegro energico, which were not given in the printed program, will give the reader unfamiliar with the piece an idea of the cyclical nature and dramatic contrasts and shifts that the work contains. This, in turn, should give an idea of the challenges of committing it to memory! Lee’s stellar performance brought the house to its feet instantly upon its conclusion. She sensed that the audience wanted, and she seemed to want to comply with its desire for, an encore, but how do you follow that work and that performance with anything that would not be an anti-climatic letdown? She’ll just have to come back and play another recital!

The performance style of the pianist-composers on the two halves of this program could not have been more diametrically opposed. Everyone knows that Liszt, in his concert-touring years, was very demonstrative and flamboyant, and very hard on the instruments. During intermissions, technicians often needed to replace broken strings and other elements of mechanisms, so spare parts had to be on hand; some venues even had spare instruments on hand to switch them out if need be. All of this is both factual and legendary. The characteristics of the performance practice school to which Fauré and Ravel belonged are, however, little known outside the circles of pianists, and especially outside of France. It is one that goes back to Chopin’s time (1810-1849), although he did not develop it. Fauré was Ravel’s composition teacher, not his piano teacher, but they became fast friends from the outset and remained so until the former’s death in 1924, and Ravel certainly admired Fauré as a pianist. He was also an organist, and there was undoubtedly some transfer of technique between the keyboards. Fauré’s piano teacher was Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), like Fauré also an organist. Saint-Saëns learned from Camille-Marie Stamaty (1811-1870), a student of pianist-composer Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), contemporary and friend of Chopin (Note the same year of death.) and colleague of Camille Pleyel, then owner of the Pleyel piano company, son of its founder, composer Ignaz Pleyel. Kalkbrenner, and then Stamaty, taught crisp, clean, precise piano playing that emphasized evenness of tone, independence of fingers, and minimal movement of body and arms – pupils were taught to sit ramrod straight with their elbows close to their sides and produce the sounds only with the fingers, wrists, and forearms. Both always remained private teachers, never teaching at the Conservatoire. Liszt spent most of his time during his later years teaching rather than touring, and his own playing style evolved (as did his compositional style: his later works foreshadow Debussy’s) towards this more reserved type. Lee struck a perfect medium: a bit more relaxed, with her arms and body a bit more involved in the handling of the keyboard and the production of the sound than the straight, stiff position of what is known as the Stamaty school allows, but without any exaggeration, flailing, or flamboyance, and she did no harm to the 135-year-old instrument, although there were a couple of dampers that did not seem to arrive on the strings quite when they should have. None of us will be arriving on time when we attain that age either…

After the performance, in which she handily proved her mettle, I asked Lee how she felt the piano suited the music; after all, nowhere else in the US can instruments like this be played, so she generally plays Steinways. She said it allows her to do things that the scores call for that cannot be done on a modern instrument, and that lots of those things make more sense as a result. She said that initially, she felt that the Liszt didn’t sit quite as well, particularly in comparison with the Fauré and Ravel pieces that it fit like a glove, but that as she practiced it felt more and more comfortable and right. This would confirm my feelings as a listener, and the two concluding paragraphs of my review of Thibaudet’s recitals. It’s a totally different soundscape that reveals previously hidden beauty in the music. It is unbelievable how much nicer and richer it sounds, and you eventually get so carried away, lost in the colors and tones, that you forget how much harsher it sounds on a Steinway, particularly in the lighter, brighter, and more musical upper and the deeper, warmer, more resonant lower registers. You almost forget that this is a percussive instrument…

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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