in: Reviews

May 5, 2014

Constantine Finehouse’s Generation of Romantics

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Constantine Finehouse played Sunday (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Constantine Finehouse played Sunday (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Boston-based pianist Constantine Finehouse chose works composed within a single decade (1836-’46) by two composers born in the same year, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann (1810), for his fourth appearance in the Frederick Historical Piano Concerts series at the Community Church in Ashburnham Sunday. (Finehouse also has played some fundraising recitals in the Collection’s Piano Study Center.) This program devoted its first half to three works by Chopin, and the second to a single one of Schumann’s that made a good mate for the three Chopin pieces in terms of content, form, and style.

Finehouse opened with Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor (1841), one of his rare darker pieces, and the chosen instrument, the collection’s 1846 Johann Baptist Streicher, suited it, with its well-articulated notes and resonant bass, even if it did not offer the soundscape of the Pleyel Chopin owned at the time of composition (or even that of a more powerful Érard). This was followed by the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, (1840-’41) and the closing piece of the set, the Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat Major (1845-’46), both chestnuts of the repertoire. To my ears, these last two works did not work as well on this instrument; the Streicher has greater robustness, a weight that the more crystalline and transparent French instruments do not, consequently the pieces of this set lost their brilliance and lightness.

On the other hand, the Streicher’s soundscape perfectly suited the Schumann Fantasy in C Major (1836, revised 1839). Finehouse’s performance was extraordinary, his concentration and precision in shaping the sound and in expression made the piece come alive. One sensed that he simply was more at home with it. He is not a demonstrative pianist, keeping his hands close to the keys, without flourish even at the end of works, and to an extent the Polonaise-Fantasy is a bravura piece that demands some flashiness. His performance of the Schumann Fantasy was the finest I have heard. Many in the audience must have felt the same, because they were on their feet instantly to applaud it.

About the piano

1846 Streicher (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

1846 Streicher (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Finehouse has chosen a different instrument for each of his Frederick Collection appearances. This recital featured the 1846 Johann Baptist Streicher, s/n 3985, an 8-foot grand, wood-framed, with two iron tension bars above the strings parallel to the straight side of the case to prevent the tension from bending the frame, but it has no metal hitchpin plate. The firm’s elaborate middle-period nameplate is on its fall board. (Read the history of the company in an earlier review of a recital played on the Collection’s 1871 Streicher.) Unlike that instrument’s ornate music stand, this one’s is simple: three long horizontal bars with two vertical ends, and why it was raised is a mystery, as Finehouse played from memory. The instrument has 84 keys, with hammers covered by leather, not felt, which gives the sound greater power and enhances the sustained ring. The case is walnut veneer, with the two standard pedals: left una corda and right damper, mounted on a lyre shape. Neither Chopin nor Schumann owned a Streicher and it is entirely possible that neither ever played one. Although Chopin spent time in Vienna on his way from Poland to Paris, performing there in 1829 and 1830, he is likely to have played Grafs, which were more widespread at that time, so soon after Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths, both of whom owned that brand. However, in Vienna their music was surely played on Streichers, and Clara Schumann, who promoted her husband’s music, played them, as did Liszt, who often programmed Chopin in recitals.

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. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and also writes for its web site: Classical Voice North America

2 Comments

  1. A minor correction: As seen in the photo, the ornate brass inlaid name is on a plaque mounted directly on the front of the piano, rather than on the fallboard, as in the later Streicher pianos.

    While the music desk could have been removed entirely, that leaves the piano looking a little bare, and gives the pianist a somewhat distracting direct view of the damper mechanism moving up and down. As you can see in the photo, if folded down, the music desk would protrude above the keyboard; and if pushed back far enough not to obtrude, the back edge of the music desk would rest on top of the damper-lifting rail, partially seen in the photo above as a black wooden bar. I hope that answers the question!

    Comment by Patricia Frederick — May 6, 2014 at 11:20 pm

  2. September 2008 on the Website of Classical Voice of New England, Inc., now http://www.performingartsne.org Marvin Ward wrote of Constantine Finehouse at The Frederick Collection:
    “There was no thrashing of the arms or flashy gestures, just serious concentration on the music, the structure of the works, and the sounds the instrument produced. There were numerous times when broad smiles graced his face as he savored the results. The audience clearly savored them, too.” Dr. Ward’s remark in the current review indicates to me that Finehouse remains more of an introspective than demonstrative pianist. Pianists of similar temperament will identify with him while others who value showmanship may wonder why the music doesn’t inspire a follow-through…not unlike the albeit required athletic swing through of a golfer. Delighted to see Ward’s well-informed reviews are appearing at The Boston Intelligencer and that Constantine Finehouse is pursuing his significant Greater Boston career introduced to me by a review by immediate past executive editor of CVNewEng/PANE, Phyllis Nordstrom. I was searching the Massachusetts page for it when I discovered this more relvant quotation.

    Comment by Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom — May 7, 2014 at 8:03 am

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