The piano featured in Yuan Sheng’s all-Chopin recital on May 8 for the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series at Ashburnham Community Church was a Pleyel made in 1845. Chopin preferred a Pleyel when he felt strong, but an Érard if he wanted to create more sound with less effort (yet this instrument is quite capable of an impressive, large, powerful hall-filling sound). He shipped a small upright Pleyel (the company being the first to make uprights in France) to Mallorca when he went there with George Sand for the winter of 1838-1839; it is still extant in the room they occupied. While there is no information suggesting that Chopin played this particular piano in the Frederick Collection, he took a Pleyel grand similar to it, serial number 13,813 made in 1846, with him to London when he fled the Revolution in April 1848. Chopin gave the last concert of his life at the Guildhall in London on November 16 of that year, using that piano, which probably also had been the instrument he played in his last Salle Pleyel Paris concert. That instrument belongs today to the Cobbe Collection Trust in Surrey, England; and it was played there by Shuann Chai (last week’s artist in this Frederick Collection series), in a pair of concerts in 2010 as part of the Chopin bicentennial celebrations. Chopin also owned the Pleyel serial numbers 7,267 (1839) and 14,810, the latter until his death.
This was Yuan Sheng’s second appearance at the Frederick Collection, the first having been a special fundraising event in July 2009, also an all-Chopin program on the same piano. Sheng has performed all over the world in concert and on the air. Considered the best expert on Bach in China, he is currently on the faculty of the Central Conservatory of Music in his native Beijing. He completed Bachelor and Masters in Music degrees at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City as a scholarship student of Solomon Mikowsky and also studied the music of Bach intensively with Rosalyn Turek.
Sheng played the entire recital from memory: all four of Chopin’s Ballades; all four of his Impromptus; and the last four of his 21 Nocturnes: Op. 55, No. 1 in f and No. 2; and Op. 62, No. 1 in B and No. 2 in E. (Only the last pair of Nocturnes was composed after this Pleyel was built.) The pieces were grouped in three pairs of each form in the same order: Nocturnes, Impromptus, Ballades, some but not all in chronological order, thus building from briefer works in slower tempi to longer, more fully developed ones with more varied tempi in each portion. Chopin was the creator of the ‘ballade’ form, having been inspired by the French poetic form that contains a dramatic narrative; he sought to imitate the various highs and lows, ups and downs of episodes in such tales in the progression of the music from its beginning to its end.
Chopin was notoriously unlike his friend and colleague Franz Liszt, who preferred Érard pianos; Chopin put all his expression into his hands and fingers without any flamboyant body language and coaxed beautiful sounds out of his instruments rather than beating them into submission. He reportedly played in a concentrated fashion and rather quietly; there are not too many dynamic markings in his scores above mf. Sheng played very much in this manner, with an expressionless face and few exuberant body or head movements until the end of some pieces. He seemed veritably to exude the music as if it were his own. He put the piano through its paces and showed off all its potential in dynamics and expression without violating the spirit of the music, unlike some overly dramatic interpreters of Chopin whom I have heard who have tempted me to exit from their performances. His playing was impeccable, highly nuanced, and extremely sensitive. It was not difficult, if you closed your eyes, to imagine that you were listening to the composer, so adroitly did Sheng bring the audience into his sound world, one so much more rewarding than most modern pianos can create. It was a masterful performance.
The Pleyel company was founded in Paris in 1807 by the Austrian composer, pianist, and music publisher Ignace Joseph Pleyel. (The publishing firm operated from 1797-1836.) His son Camille, also a pianist, who had spent his youth in England, soon joined him, became a full partner in 1815, and head of the firm in 1824 when Ignace retired. Camille met the pianist Frédéric (Friedrich) Kalkbrenner (1785-1849) that year and, in consultation with him, made several innovations and improvements to the instrument that made it attractive to pianists and buyers. He was also a close personal friend of Chopin, who gave his first and last Paris concerts — in February 1832 and on February 16, 1848 respectively — in the Salle Pleyel, the 300-seat concert hall built in 1830 by the company at 22 rue Rochechouart,. The factory was located next door at 20 rue Rochechouart. After that first concert, Chopin realized that his playing style was not well suited to large halls, so he gave only a single concert each year, always in the Salle Pleyel. Pleyel often lent Chopin instruments in exchange for his promotion of them, but this support was absolutely sincere, not tainted by his friendship or self-interest, in spite of the fact that he dedicated the French and English editions of his Préludes, Op. 28 (1836-1839) to Camille.
Neither that Salle Pleyel nor that piano company is any longer extant. The Salle was replaced in 1927 by the 3,000-seat hall at 252, rue du faubourg Saint-Honoré, rebuilt after a 1928 fire with 2,400 seats and reconfigured in 2002-2006 with 1,913 (here), now home to the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. After the 1928 fire, the Pleyel company was not able to pay the mortgage on the hall, so it was repossessed by the Crédit Lyonnais bank, which rebuilt it and ultimately sold it in 1998 to a private corporation; but the hall has always retained the iconic name. The piano company struggled through the Great Depression and WW II and finally merged with the previously merged (1960) firms of Érard and Gaveau in 1961. Schimmel acquired the conglomerate in 1971; in 1994, the Rameau Company bought the names of Pleyel and Gaveau and made pianos under the Pleyel name in Alès in the south of France, moving back to the Paris region in 2007, to Saint-Denis where the very first factory was located, with a showroom in the Salle Pleyel building. Gaveau made mostly uprights, and some are made again under that name at the Pleyel factory. Of the three major French makes, Érards had the most distinctive sound. Alas, they are no longer made.
The Frederick Collection instrument, Pleyel serial number 11,820, measures ca. 6’ 8”, has a compass of 6.5 octaves, and a composite frame with four iron tension bars and an iron hitch-pin plate (Pleyel was the first maker to introduce this feature in France) in a wooden case with mahogany veneer. It is double strung in the base and triple strung in the middle and upper registers, has an English action, and the now standard two pedals (una corda and sustaining), so is very different in sound from Viennese pianos such as the Katholnig featured last week at the Frederick Collection. The Pleyel creates a louder sound but requires a somewhat more forceful touch and is less sensitive, although still far more sensitive than a modern instrument. It is resonant, producing a smooth, round sound, bell-like in the upper register without being sharp or edgy, and deep in the bass without being dark or husky. Its tone is clear and delicate, but it has color and warmth and is more liquid than dry. Its decay is rapid, so the individual notes remain distinct and the sound does not become muddy when the next notes are played.
Sheng’s May 8 program was recorded afterwards and will ultimately be released on CD. There are other recordings of the Ballades on earlier instruments — I own one on the Erato label from 1993 by Alexeï Lubimov, who performed on an 1837 Érard that I love, and some of the Nocturnes have also been recorded on earlier instruments; there are so many recordings of various nocturnes that it is difficult to verify with most retail web site search engines, but Bart van Oort recorded both pairs on the Brilliant Classics label on a Pleyel in 2005. There are, however, no recordings of the Impromptus on an earlier piano, so this one will corner the market.
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.