Stephen Porter opened his recital in the Ashburnham Community Church on Sunday afternoon with Liszt’s “Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este,” No. 4 from his Années de pélerinage, 3e année, S. 163, composed in 1877, the year of the piano’s manufacture, and published in 1883. The work, inspired by the famous fountains in Tivoli, now a World Heritage Site, was the first of a set of seven mostly depicting, imitating, or evoking water in one or another of its forms that filled the first half of the program.
This Erard model, made from 1877 into the late 1920s, is a phenomenal instrument. It is parallel strung over a metal composite frame with a 90-key range, and has an amazing power for an instrument of its type. It has a crystalline clarity with a distinctive bell-like ring – think the sound made by striking a fine crystal glass with your fingernail – and a slow decay. Imagine now the effect of a wrong note struck on it; it’s unforgiving of errors, so very demanding of a musician playing it. There were no such on this fine program. Its tone is particularly well suited for works like the Liszt, which imitates the trickling of the water over the edges of the fountains.
Liszt owned an Erard when he wrote this work, although not this model, designed for a concert hall and therefore not suitable for a salon or studio, which he purchased in Paris and had shipped to his villa on Lake Como, where it remained until his death. Ravel also owned an Erard, and they were the official pianos of the Paris Conservatoire for many years, but the Great War followed by the Great Depression and then the Occupation finally did the company in. It merged with Gaveau and then Pleyel and the name was ultimately purchased in the 1960s by Schimmel.
The next three selections were from Ravel’s 1904 Miroirs: Nos. 5 “La Vallée des cloches,” 2 “Oiseaux tristes,” and 3 “Une barque sur l’océan,” whose waves rolled out from the keys. These were followed by three pieces by Debussy, who played, though did not own Erards: “Reflets dans l’eau” from his Images Series I of 1905, “La neige danse from Coin des enfants of 1908, and “Jardins sous la pluie” from Estampes of 1903. This was Porter’s seventh appearance in a Frederick Collection season, and he had played this instrument in earlier ones, allowing him to make judicious selections of works to display its tone qualities and dynamic potential.
The second half was devoted to Liszt’s monumental Sonata in b, S. 178, composed in 1852-53, a work with which Porter is intimately familiar, having actually played it here several years ago and recorded it in 2001 on a Steinway. It is an approximately 35-minute work in three movements, with a return to its opening notes twice and again at the end, but with instructions to be played without interruption. It is thus something of an endurance test for the pianist as well as a challenge for her/his concentration, challenges easily met by Porter with confidence and without any gratuitous demonstrative gestures.
This was a truly fine program superbly played with an amazing sound. Porter teaches at Phillips Andover. There are many fine musicians like him tucked away in corners all across the nation, but especially here in New England, who do not have the instant international name recognition of, say, an Emmanuel Ax, a Vladimir Horowitz, or, in his day, a Franz Liszt, because they choose not to be constantly on the go or on the move playing the same program in a different city every few days for a year, but rather to stay put in a place they love and share their talents with their neighbors and instill them in the next generations.