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Piano History with Chai and Pincombe


As with all concerts in the Frederick Collection’s series in Ashburnham, some preliminary background information concerning the instrument being featured is necessary before the performance can be discussed, and in this case, it must be fairly lengthy. In the first third of the nineteenth century, there were over a hundred (some say over 250) piano builders working in Vienna. They were experimenting with and developing materials and mechanisms, some more successful than others, that changed and enhanced the sound produced by the instrument. They were mostly small workshops, of course, often single individual or family operations. Few were successful enough to be passed on to a second generation, but some, such as Streicher, survived through grandchildren and beyond, even to the end of the century and on into the twentieth; a couple  of workshhops, e.g. Bösendorfer, even survive, although no longer in the family, to the present day. The names of some are known only through advertisements, diaries, journals, etc., where they are mentioned; others’ names are known only because of their presence in an inlay or on a plate on the fallboard of an instrument that has survived to the present day, most not in playing condition, although an occasional one has been well enough cared for that it is, and others have been painstakingly restored. For most, few details are known about the makers themselves.

Such is the case for the builder of the instrument played by Amsterdam-based, Chinese-American pianist Shuann Chai this past weekend, during her fifth appearance on the Frederick Collection series in Ashburnham (having chosen a different instrument each time) in a pair of concerts featuring the complete music of Beethoven for ’cello and piano. The plate on the piano, made ca. 1805-1810, says: “Caspar Katholnig, Burger in Wien”; Katholnig was born ca. 1763 in Villach in the Carinthia region of Austria and died in Vienna on March 9, 1829. According to ads, he made grand, square, and upright pianos (You can read about some early upright pianos, very different from modern ones, here .); three grands and seven squares have survived, but no uprights. The addresses of his workshop and three of his residences, including the last, are known, but not much else.

Its approximate age can be determined by its keyboard’s six-octave range and the ‘reverse’ colors of its keys (naturals black ebony, flats and sharps white ivory — a holdover from harpsichords which was mostly abandoned after 1811 — and other features of its walnut case and mechanism. While little is known about Katholnig, something is known about the instrument’s owners: it belonged to the Esterházys, Haydn’s long-time employers, and was in their palace at Eisenstadt when Johann Nepomuk Hummel occupied the same position of Kapellmeister from 1804 to 1811, and where he composed his third and fourth piano sonatas; hence he most certainly played it. It was probably there when Beethoven visited to conduct the orchestra in a performance of his Mass in c in 1807, so he may have placed his fingers on its keys as well.

The instrument came with authentication papers when the Fredericks purchased it from the Esterházy’s heirs. Its sound is small by modern standards, of course, but it was large by Beethoven’s. It is probably the last type of piano sound that he was able to hear relatively fully. It has four pedals, left to right: una corda, bassoon, moderator, and sustaining/damper. The una corda shifts the hammers so that they strike only one of the two or three strings per note (depending on the register. On a modern instrument, it strikes two of the three, so it is today actually misnamed.); the bassoon (presently disabled) inserts a strip of parchment between the dampers and the strings of the bass register for a buzzing sound, popular in the day, but unpleasant to our ears; the moderator inserts a strip of felt between hammers and strings for a true pianissimo sound; and the sustaining pedal lifts all the dampers as on a modern instrument. These give the piano a far greater range and variety of tone than a modern one can possibly produce, even if it cannot fill a large concert hall with sound. It fills the square-ish late-nineteenth-century sanctuary of the Ashburnham Community Church, whose uncarpeted wood floors and tin walls and high flat tin ceiling give it a fine acoustic, quite nicely. These instruments were, after all, made for smaller performance halls in private palaces and residences before the large concert halls that we know today existed – that period saw the very beginnings of public concert halls in Vienna, although they existed earlier in London. You can see a photo of the hall in the Esterházy palace in Eisenstadt where this instrument probably stood here.

Because of the nature and number of developments and improvements to the piano during Beethoven’s lifetime, there is no single piano type that is the ideal Beethoven one; it varies with the period of the individual work. Furthermore, Beethoven owned several different instruments by various makers of varying keyboard compass from five to 6.5 octaves (three of them, one no longer playable, still in existence), and played pianos by yet other makers. Because this instrument was made near the midpoint of his piano compositional career, and because models with subsequent changes would not have been accurately audible to him, this ends up being well-suited to his piano music, except for the late works such as the final five sonatas, whose range of notes is broader that it can accommodate. The only ’cello works that were composed significantly after this instrument was made are his last, the Op. 102 sonatas composed in 1815, but they do not require more keys, so it is truly ideal for this concert.

String instruments experienced far fewer developments and modifications over time than keyboard ones. The primary difference between early and modern ones is the use in the latter of metal rather than gut strings. Northern Italy was the center of string instrument-making at this period that Vienna was for pianos.

Steuart Pincombe, based in Oberlin, OH, who also plays in Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, plays a 1720 ’cello by Milanese luthier Carlo Antonio Testore (1687-1765) with gut strings, on loan from the Jumpstart Jr. Foundation in the Netherlands, and uses a new classical-period-style bow made for him by Rodney Mohr. Testore’s father, Carlo Giuseppe, was also a luthier, known especially for his double basses; his brother Paolo Antonio was likewise in the craft. This ’cello is 7/8 size, and Pincombe held it as one would a viola da gamba, between his calves; the retractable stick came later. It has a very deep, mellow resonance, but does not have the booming power of a more modern full-sized instrument. It seemed a perfect match for the piano.

Playing all of Beethoven’s music for ’cello and piano is by no means an endurance contest. There are only eight works: five sonatas and three sets of variations, two of them on airs from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and the third on Handel’s “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from his Judas Maccabeus, which fit easily onto two CDs. My set, featuring Anthony Pleeth playing a replica of a 1759 Guadagnini ’cello and Melvyn Tan playing a replica of an 1814 Nanette Streicher piano, has a total playing time of 140:20, i.e., just over two hours and twenty minutes. Note that, unlike Beethoven’s works that we commonly refer to as violin sonatas today, but whose scores identify as works for piano with violin, he always designated these as works for ’cello. He was, in fact, the first to compose sonatas for the instrument that treat it as an equal partner with the piano; it had previously played primarily continuo or duplicated portions of the left hand score of the piano part. Think of the ’cello’s role in many of Haydn’s piano trios, for example. Of course, playing them all is no stroll in the park either, for they are extremely demanding with an enormous variety of dynamics, rhythms, and tempi.

In spite of all this, these works are rarely performed in this manner, and not frequently programmed in general, so hearing them in this series was a special treat. On Saturday evening, we heard the earlier works, the first two sonatas in F and g, Op. 5, “Deux grandes sonates pour le clavecin ou piano forté avec un violoncelle obligé,” published in 1796, composed for the famous French ’cellist Jean-Pierre Duport —— who owned the Stradivarius subsequently owned by Auguste Franchomme, Adrien-François Servais, and most recently by Mstislav Rostropovich — and premièred by the composer and Duport in the Potsdam palace in Berlin before their dedicatee King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, nephew of Frederick the Great, an accomplished amateur ’cellist (for whom Mozart composed the “Prussian” Quartets) and Duport’s employer. At this point in his career, Beethoven was far better known as a pianist and improviser than as a composer. The sonatas were separated by the two sets of variations, in Eb and F respectively, on the Mozart tunes, “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” WoO 46 from 1801 and “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Op. 66, published in 1807 but probably written in 1797-1798, with the intermission between them.

On Sunday afternoon, we heard the latest works, the 1815 Op. 102 sonatas, in C and D, “Deux sonates pour le pianoforté et violoncelle,” in the first half, and the set of variations in G on the Handel tune, WoO 45 from 1796, followed by the middle sonata in A, Op. 69, dating from 1807-08, which contains the sole scherzo movement of the five sonatas in the second half. It was a logical and satisfying arrangement because of the variety it created, even if it did not follow strict chronological order. The title of the Op. 5 works was probably an invention of the publisher Artaria, hoping to increase sales, since pianos were still in their infancy and not numerous in private residences; Beethoven most certainly never played them on a harpsichord and the dynamic markings clearly indicate a piano, since a harpsichord could not produce them. The pretense was no longer necessary twenty years later, when he published the Op. 102 pair.

The sounds were gentle, sweet and mellow, less bright and brash than those produced by a modern piano or with metal strings on the ’cello. They created a more intimate feel than one of bravura and display, although the music inherently has plenty of the latter. Whatever these instruments lack in fff power in comparison to modern ones is gained in the exquisite nuances that can be realized in the ppp range, which cannot be matched with a modern piano or metal strings. The lower registers are particularly resonant, and notes are clear, crisp, distinct and precise across all registers. The performance on these instruments allows the listener to enter into the composer’s sound world. There is a distinct range from soft to loud with some moments for each instrument to shine above the other as well as to perform solo, sometimes in echo fashion, within all the pieces. In general, the slower movements seemed more elegant and refined than the faster ones from a compositional perspective. The first movement of Op. 5/2, marked Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, was quite serene, the slower tempo allowing the special qualities of each instrument to reveal themselves. The second movement Adagio con molto sentiment d’affetto of Op. 102/2 also stood out. The final Rondo: Allegro movement of Op. 5/2 was quite brilliant. The two Op. 5 sonatas together, No. 1 in F and No. 2 in g, offer their own variation on the contrasting moods and potentials of the instrumental pairing. The same is the case with the two Op. 102 sonatas, No. 1 in C and No. 2 in D, but there are fewer dark, brooding moments since both are in major keys, and Beethoven’s compositional skills have clearly matured during the intervening years, with the brilliant moments being more smoothly integrated into the whole fabric, and the set of five ending with a fugue, the form that he focused so intently on during his late period.

Chai and Pincombe made a seamless duo, communicating well with each other, handling balance deftly and with sensitivity, and playing with clarity and precision. They were clearly enjoying the sounds they were able to produce with these instruments, as evidenced by Chai’s frequently breaking out into broad smiles and Pincombe’s occasionally emphatic head and body language. Pincombe may not yet have the reputation of Duport, nor Chai that of Beethoven as a performer, but they are superb musicians. They recorded these works after the performances for release on CD. I look forward to having it take its place on my shelves.

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.

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