At 4 in the afternoon this second Sunday in May (9), pianist Emma Tahmiziàn will play the first of Schumann’s 18 Davidsbündler-Tänze, finished in 1837, on a remarkable instrument. A piano made in 1846 by Johann Baptist Streicher, from Vienna, impressed her powerfully and indelibly during her unexpected encounter with it last summer. She resolved to take up the challenge of playing music she knows well on this historic instrument, of whose existence she had been entirely unaware, and whose sonic vocabulary presented her with new, unfamiliar interpretive challenges. In a conversation this week, Ms. Tahmiziàn exclaimed, with simplicity and characteristic spark, “Clara Schumann and Liszt… I’m playing their exact instrument this Sunday!” She says that the elegant Streicher grand summoned forth tone production and dynamic layers that she carries close to her heart, and which she had never before felt she could achieve so fully.
The venue for this first public encounter of interpreter and composer-era instrument will be the uncarpeted, resonant Ashburnham Community Church in the north-central Massachusetts town of the same name. Patricia and Edmund Michael Frederick are the owners and co-curators of the three dozen or so grand pianos their exceptional collection has grown to include. Back in October of 1981, they first furnished a restored historic piano for a concert and related symposium at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH. Mike Frederick poured through organological publications and sale catalogues here and overseas, slowly accruing instruments in original condition, to afford unambiguous, incontrovertible information on the exact soundscapes composers had in mind when they conceived their scores for solo, chamber, vocal, and concerted music. In 1985, 25 years ago, the Fredericks mustered the financial resources to announce a modest first season of Historical Piano Concerts in Ashburnham.
Since then, Music from the Frederick Collection, the name the series has borne on its public radio airings, has expanded to five fall and five spring concerts each year. This will be the 25th anniversary spring season. These Sunday afternoons offer chamber, vocal, and solo programs. The Fredericks present both modern pianists intrigued by the interpretational challenge of playing composer-era original instruments, and musicians whose careers regularly encompass performance on modern fortepiano copies and on the rare surviving period grands made available by museums, conservatories, and private collectors. The Collection is virtually unique among global historical piano resources in that musicians of all stripes are encouraged, not merely permitted, to try out the full range of old and new repertoire, with and without chamber and vocal colleagues, and to spend extended time at the keyboards of the two dozen or so instruments in the Piano Study Center, also in Ashburnham. With a common-sense curatorial approach, the earliest Collection instruments are not subjected to unlimited playing, of course. A no-velvet-ropes treasure house of original instruments to play? Yes, indeed.
What instruments does one find there? They range from an anonymous Austro-German piano built from the expanded, exquisitely veneered, carcase of a Bavarian harpsichord, up through period models from Vienna, London, Paris, Leipzig, Boston, and New York. There are modern, early-20th-century instruments by Blüthner and Erard. The Frederick Collection website has information on each piano, from images and dates to keyboard compass, pitch, and other technical data. The roots of the piano as an instrument predate the oldest Ashburnham examples by a century, but surviving playable pianos by its Florentine inventor, Bartolomeo Cristofori, its first significant Northern European developer, Gottfried Silbermann, and such celebrated Viennese and German geniuses as Anton Walter, Nanette Streicher, and Joh. Andreas Stein are rare as hen’s teeth. You will have to look at them (and definitely not be permitted to touch, let alone play them) in the great art museums of Rome, Vienna, London, New York, Paris, Munich, and Nürnberg. Still, it is primarily the astonishing diversity and superb condition of the Fredericks’ selection of 19th-century pianos that continues to draw pianists and their collaborative colleagues to make the short journey to Ashburnham. There they encounter fellow musicians from around the world, similarly intrigued at the thought of rediscovering music on the actual instruments for which it was written.
Emma Tahmiziàn muses that “encountering this collection has put me in mind of succumbing yet more wholly to my native inquisitiveness.” She continues, “each piano spoke to me of a different, specific piece. Remarkable. As a pianist, I have here a precious opportunity to get in touch with the actual sonorities with which the composers dealt. This is moving, enormously so. I am in awe of what this dedicated couple are doing and feel deep gratitude toward them.”
The late Richard Shirk, winner of the 1981 Leschetizky Prize, was a special pianist who, out of considerable experience, appreciated the enormous capabilities of the modern Steinway grand. It was a good many years before he “reluctantly caved in,” as he wryly quipped, to mounting pressure from friends and colleagues to at last undertake a pèlerinage to Ashburnham. Confronted with the seductive possibility of bringing familiar scores to life on instruments exactly contemporary with those for which the great composers had conceived them, he arrived at a substantial personal epiphany. On returning to New York from his first Frederick Collection visit, Mr. Shirk called me in what was, for him, an unusual state of excitement, enthusing “I just can’t unhear what those instruments have to tell me!” Pat and Mike Frederick asked him to play on the Collection series. He did so in successive seasons, each concert being recorded for the Fredericks’ extensive archive and for NPR broadcast. In our final conversation before his death a few years ago, Shirk said that, no, these were not instruments on which he would often have the opportunity of performing. They had so changed what he expected of modern pianos, however, that he was no longer prepared to play instruments he found to be brutal, excessively loud, or incapable of a respectable range of piano dynamics. That decision, he noted, was quite a leap.
Other modern pianists have described the start of private artistic journeys after playing in Ashburnham. They have often been startled to find themselves reevaluating the expressive possibilities of the piano as a whole, with predictably interesting results as they adjust upward their standards for timbre production, dynamic shading, and transparency. Out in the contemporary piano world, applying elevated expectations in the face of concert-hall reality can be sobering and, not a few pianist colleagues report, distressing. But if more practicing musicians, pianists obviously first among them, become aware of the sheer wealth of tonal variety prevalent among forerunner pianos, even among instruments that were made as recently as during the early careers of their teachers, they cannot help but learn to require greater subtlety from pianos in conservatories and concert halls, even at homes.
From Boston: Allow for outbound Sunday afternoon traffic! Drive an hour west on Rte. 2, past Fitchburg. Seven miles or so later, turn north (right) onto Rte. 140 and, after two miles, right again on Rte. 101. Six miles later, after passing through So. Ashburnham, you will reach a T with Rte. 12 in Ashburnham. Turn left and head uphill for under 1/8 mile, then either turn onto Chapel St. or, just past it, into the parking lot of the Ashburnham Community Church. The doors (upper level, in back) open at 3:30. Admission is $10; children and students are free.