For her fourth appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts Series on May 30, Chinese-American pianist Shuann Chai, who now lives in Amsterdam in The Netherlands, chose to perform on the 1840 Érard. This is the company’s concert grand of Chopin’s day, and is perhaps the most photogenic instrument in the collection, with its brass-inlay-in-rosewood case; you can find views of it here. It is less powerful than the 1877 “Extra-grand modèle de concert” heard in the previous two recitals, but what it loses in power, it gains in tonal expression. It has a husky, deep-throated base, a velvety middle, and a silvery upper register, giving it a sensitive richness. Although Chopin preferred the more intimate sounding Pleyel pianos, this one would have certainly satisfied his proclaimed preference for sensitivity over power, providing enough of the latter to fill a salon or even a moderate-sized recital hall; it was fine in the squarish sanctuary of the Ashburnham Community Church.
Chai’s program was tailor-made to show off this richness and to showcase the year’s two bicentennial luminaries: Chopin and Robert Schumann, with a few short showpieces by their contemporaries and one of their successors, some now forgotten, others now rarely performed, thrown in. She opened with Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C Sharp, Op. 39 from 1839. This was followed by three of his Nocturnes: in E, Op. 62/2 (1846); in Db, Op. 27/2 (1835); and in c, Op. 48/1 (1841). The first half concluded with a set of four diverse bravura gems: Liszt’s Gnomenreigen [Dance of the Gnomes], S. 145/1 (1862-3); Adolf Henselt’s Etude in D, “Si oiseau j’étais” [If I were a bird], Op. 2/6 (1837-8); Chopin’s Etude in C Sharp, Op. 10/4 (1832); and Moritz Moszkowski’s Étincelles [Sparks], from his Acht Charakterstücke, Op. 36/6 (1910). The Henselt and Moszkowski pieces were once popular encores by renowned pianists, such as Vladimir Horowitz in the case of the latter.
The second half opened with Clara Schumann’s Romanza in a minor, Op. 21/1 (1855), followed by Liszt’s transcription (1848) of Robert Schumann’s song “Widmung” [Dedication] (1840), on the eve of his wedding with Clara, S. 566. Clara Schumann played Érards in concert, although, unlike Liszt, she did not own one. The balance of the recital was devoted to Robert Schuman’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838), which was dedicated to Chopin. In acknowledgement of the prolonged standing ovation, Chai played an encore bringing us, as she said, back to the beginning (in both composer and key signature): Chopin’s Waltz in c sharp minor, Op. 64/2 (1846-7).
After the opening piece, Chai offered spoken program notes that were detailed and displayed her knowledge of the composers and the works she programmed. She included anecdotes such as Liszt’s purported statement after hearing Henselt play that he wished he had such “velvet paws.” Henselt, a piano pupil of Hummel, was severely afflicted with stage fright and gave up performing at the age of 33, moving to St. Petersburg in 1838, where he was essentially the founder of the Conservatory; his body of compositions includes only a dozen original works, although he made numerous transcriptions and arrangements.
Chai’s performance was as competent as her comments, and as sparkling as the compositions. She played all but the Henselt and the Kreiserliana from memory, and was by no means wedded to the scores in these. Her connection to this region dates from her Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston, time when she first became acquainted with the Frederick Collection. Unlike many of the pianists who discover it and come to it principally from the perspective of the modern Steinway, Chai has also extensively studied performance on instruments even earlier with such experts as Malcolm Bilson, Claus-Christian Schuster, Bart van Oort, and Stanley Hoogland. She has chosen a different instrument for each of her appearances on the series. All of this was eminently apparent in her masterful exploiting of the full potential of the 1840 Érard. This summer, she will be playing a pair of concerts in Surrey (UK) celebrating the Chopin bicentennial, performing on the composer’s own Pleyel grand.