in: Reviews

October 11, 2011

Diana Fanning Enchanting on 1840 Érard

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Diana Fanning plays Érard (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

For her second appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series in Ashburnham on October 9, Middlebury College Affiliate Artist Diana Fanning chose a program of Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin (both born in 1810; Chopin died in 1849, Schumann in 1856) on the Collection’s 1840 Érard. Preferring the lighter and more delicate Pleyels, Chopin himself never owned an Érard, but played ones like this occasionally in public concerts rather than private salon performances. Robert Schumann probably did not play an Érard; he stopped playing early in his career due to a hand injury. His wife Clara, however, played and liked them. Robert’s music was known and played in Paris, undoubtedly on instruments like this. Its tone is quite warm, very clear, and highly nuanced, bell-like in the upper register and differentiated among the registers; entirely different from that of the Steinways we are accustomed to hearing in concert halls. It also has less power than the latter, but is entirely adequate for the Community Church’s town-hall-sized sanctuary and for the dynamic variations in this music, which require more delicacy and precision than volume. Chopin did not play very loudly, engage in flamboyant gestures, or flail his arms à la Liszt; neither does his music have any dynamic markings above fortissimo, and there are not many of those. Many pianists play his works in an emotionally demonstrative way that is entirely inappropriate.

Fanning chose music mostly from the 1830s, mostly by Robert Schumann, and crafted a program, played entirely from memory, with numerous interconnections (such as tolling bells) among the works. She provided superb printed program notes, supplemented by spoken ones illustrated with demonstrations at the keyboard of the various melodies and motifs. Both of the Schumann works were composed on the same note sequence: Papillons, Op. 2: 12 Metamorphosen über die Noten A-S-C-H (1829-31), which opened the program, and Carnaval, Op. 9: Vingt scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes–A-S-C-H (1834-35) on the second half. Asch was the hometown of his secret then-fiancée Ernestine von Fricken, to whom Op. 2 is dedicated, and are also, in a different order, the musical letters in his own family name. They also spell the German equivalent of “ash,” as in Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, or “carnival,” Fasching in German, a word that appears in yet another work, Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26.

Clara, who is represented in Op. 9 as Chiarina (Ernestine is also present as Estrella), premièred it; she also premièred Op. 2, and played both in recital frequently throughout her life. Liszt heard her play Op. 9 in 1837 and declared it to be one of the greatest works he knew. Both are sets of “character pieces” (Op. 26 is not) in the tradition of many French Baroque harpsichord works: music that evokes the character of an individual, whether real, traditional, literary (Op. 2 was inspired by Jean Paul’s Die Flegeljahre [Years of Indiscretion]), or imaginary (Eusebius and Florestan represent the two sides of Schumann’s own nature). Both are based on various waltz rhythms inspired by Schubert and melodies (some of which are used in both works) with traditional associations, such as the Grandfather’s Waltz that always signaled the end of a ball; both also take place in masked ball settings. We hear these works all the time on the radio and in live performances, but rarely, if ever, do we get the insight into their structure that Fanning offered in such an interesting manner. Rare too is the superb rendering that she gave and the enchanting sounds that the Érard provided along with its ability, absent from a Steinway, to better differentiate among the movements and highlight their inherent contrasts.

The balance of the first half was filled with a group of six short works by Chopin, some frequently and others rarely heard, that gave something of a representative sample of the genres he used. The first was his first Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 1 in b-flat (1830-31). Schumann claimed that Carnaval was inspired by a Chopin nocturne; this was the only one written prior to its composition. This was followed by an Impromptu in F-sharp, Op. 36 (1839), in turn followed by two Preludes, Op. 28 No. 23 in F (1838-39), and Op. 28 No. 17 in A-flat (1836). Two Waltzes closed the set, in A-flat, Op. 64 No. 3 (1847), and in e, Op. post. (1829), actually the first Chopin wrote while still a student in Poland. We were treated to another Chopin piece as an encore, his Etude in A-flat, Op. 25 No. 1, the “Aeolian harp” (1837), a name not given to it by Chopin, but coming from Robert Schumann’s description of it—yet another subtle interconnection.

Fanning got it all right. She played expertly, with absolute mastery and seeming ease, in a tightly controlled manner, always physically but gracefully involved. She was always smiling, facial expressions showing her clear love of the music and the sheer pleasure the Érard’s response and sound gave her, which the listeners also clearly shared, as evidenced by the enthusiastic applause.

More on the instrument: the 1840, serial number 14731, is 8 feet, 10.5 inches long, has a range of 6 and 2/3 (originally 6.5) octaves, is parallel strung—triple in the upper registers, double in the upper eight bass notes, and overspun single in the lowest six notes on a separate bridge—and has five iron tension bars, a metal hitchplate and other metal parts mounted on a wooden frame (Érard never built cross- or overstrung pianos with cast iron frames like Steinway always has). Its especially attractive and elegant case is rosewood with a brass line inlay, and the maker’s nameplate on the fallboard is particularly elaborate and ornate. It was modified by the maker in 1860, with two notes added on the upper end of the keyboard, “updating” it to play and sound like the firm’s instruments made at that time. It has two pedals, una corda and damper, on the maker’s signature lyre-shaped lyre. You can read about the Érard company’s 200 years of piano making at the end of my review of the recital on the Collection’s 1877 Érard extra-grand modèle de concert two weeks ago here, an instrument that will be featured again two weeks hence.

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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