“Communion of Composers” was the title that UK-based Taiwanese-American pianist Yi-heng Yang used to describe the program she and her cellist partner, Belmont-based Kate Haynes, put together for Yang’s third appearance and Haynes’s debut on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series yesterday afternoon in Ashburnham. They chose the Collection’s 1830 Tröndlin to partner with Haynes’s cello made in Paris in 1753 by Johannes Matthias (Jean-Mathias) Wolters, fitted with gut strings; she used a modern copy of a Classical-era bow made by Gerhard Landwehr in the Netherlands. Readers can find details about the piano and the company in my review [here]of a recital in the fall of 2010. This piano, like the 1877 Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert, is an instrument popular among the pianists that play in the Frederick Collection series (this was the piano’s second outing this season), yet none have to date used it for a commercially available recording. Nor, to my knowledge, has any contemporary piano builder made any replicas of any Tröndlin. Both of these facts are to my mind astonishing for an instrument with such a unique and beautiful sound. Perhaps Yang and Haynes will remedy the first of these lacks?
Two cello sonatas, Beethoven’s fourth, in C, op. 102/1, composed in 1815 and published in 1817, and Mendelssohn’s second, in D, op. 58, composed in June 1845, were written a neat 15 years on either side of the year of the piano’s manufacture; they surrounded a performance by Yang of Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, op. 13, composed in 1834, first published in 1837 under the title XII Études symphoniques and revised for publication in 1852 under the title Études en forme de variations. Scores were used for all performances, but Yang certainly did not have her eyes glued to the Schumann.
This work has a complex composition history and development. The base theme was written for variations for the flute) by the Baron von Fricker, whose daughter Ernestine was then the object of Robert’s amorous attentions (until he discovered that she was illegitimate, and would thus not inherit), so Schumann conceived this as a tribute to gain the father’s approval. Schumann assembled some 12 variations from the 18 that had been composed under the prospective title Davidsbündler Studien, named for the mythical league that he led against the contemporary cultural Philistines, and then changed the title for publication to Etüden in Orchestercharakter für pianoforte von Florestan und Eusebius, the two pseudonyms that represented the two sides of his own personality. He used the pseudonyms in his music criticism in the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that he had founded, also in 1834. When he revised the piece in 1852, three variations were removed, leaving nine. After his death, various editions were issued, some of which include all of the original 18 variations interpolated in various ways, but Yang played one that interpolated four (including two published as op. post. in 1873) into the nine of the second edition, producing something akin to the order of the first, with the introductory theme and the concluding Finale that uses a theme by Marschner, XII in that edition, and is, in fact, quite different from the other pieces in both length and style, bringing the total to 15 movements.
Schumann’s work, combining the forms of the étude and variations, became quite influential for subsequent composers across Europe, including, among others, Gabriel Fauré in France, whose Thème et  variations, op. 73 (1895), owes it no small debt. Personally, I had never quite understood what attracted so many to the Schumann; I had never found it particularly attractive, well organized, or pleasing — until this performance. This instrument, which must sound very much like the one for and on which it was composed, made the alternating contrasts between the tempos and moods truly come to life, bringing forth its colors and making it blossom. Of course, the instrument didn’t do that all by itself; this was achieved through Yang’s absolute mastery of the work’s spirit and style and her stunning control of the instrument’s potentials through her approach to its responsive keyboard, using minute gradations in its dynamic range, and shadings of its colors. She made the Tröndlin truly sing, from the resonant bass to the ethereal treble registers. She played it with equal control of her body movements; there were no flying arms or punctuating head. One could veritably see the jaws of the members of the audience drop in astonishment at her accomplishment.
These same qualities of the instrument and Yang’s consummate skill in handling it paired with Haynes’ incredibly sweet sound. This was a perfect match for the Tröndlin. Both sonatas consequently sounded better than I had ever heard them before. It was in the Mendelssohn where the “communion” of the composers was truly consummated, with the “silent composer (Bach)” that Yang mentioned in her opening comments. J.S. Bach’s spirit and influence were present in all the works, though his music was not on the program. It became crystal clear, in Mendelssohn’s third movement, marked Adagio, and essentially a chorale, (as in the St. Matthew Passion, revived by Mendelssohn in 1829), that the evangelist was speaking through the cello. The effect was simply sublime under the hands of these musicians.
I have heard the Beethoven sonata numerous times, even have reviewed it previously in these pages, once in a performance for the Fredericks Collection series that used a piano of Beethoven’s time; but never before had the sonata sung out as well or sounded so lovely as it did at this performance. The Mendelssohn is much less frequently played, much less than it deserves. We know that he was especially fond of Tröndlin’s instruments since he put them in the Leipzig Gewandhaus; it was easy to see why today. I was not alone in being ‘blown away,’ the entire audience was instantly on its feet at the end with shouts of ‘Brava!’ The musicians rewarded it with a lovely encore, Mendelssohn’s “Frühlingslied,” Lieder ohne Worte, op. 19/1, transcribed by Friedrich Grützmacher for piano and cello, bringing the audience to its feet yet again.
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