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Joshua Travels Back in Time with Streicher


For her third appearance on May 15 at the Frederick Collection Historical Piano Concerts series in Ashburnham, Israel-born, UK-based pianist Sharona Joshua, who teaches fortepiano at the University of Birmingham, chose to reconstruct a recital given by Clara Schumann (1819-1896) in London on February 1, 1871. Joshua chose a Streicher piano, serial number 7119,  made in that year, which is similar to the one made in 1868, serial number 6713, destroyed in WW II, that Johannes Brahms bought in 1872 and had in his studio for the last twenty years of his life. The 7’10” Frederick instrument, with a walnut case, fretwork (vine pattern with central lyre matching the pedal lyre) music stand, and standard ornate nameplate saying: “J.B. Streicher & Sohn in Wien, K. K. [Königliche Kaiserliche (Royal Imperial)] Hof & Kammer-piano forte-Fabrikant [Court and Chamber piano Manufacturer]” on the fallboard, has a keyboard compass of seven octaves and two pedals: una corda and sustaining.

The patriarch of the legendary Streicher family of piano makers was not a Streicher; he was Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792), who built instruments in Augsburg in the late eighteenth century, beginning in 1759. (Mozart played and owned some.) The business went to his daughter Anna Maria, “Nannette” (1769-1833), and her younger brother Matthäus Andreas (1776-1842). Nanette married Johann Andreas Streicher (1761-1833) in 1794 and they all moved the business to Vienna; her husband joined it in 1801 and Matthäus Andreas withdrew in 1802. The texts of the labels on the fallboards varied with these domestic changes during the decade between 1792 and 1802, and even later when the business passed on to their son Johann Baptist (1796-1871), who joined the firm in 1823, took it over in 1833 upon his parents’ deaths, and retired in 1859, turning it over to his son Emil (1836-1916), who had come on board in 1857. Emil (who never put his name on the fallboard; see above) liquidated the company in 1896 because he could not interest his son Theodor (1874-1940) in continuing it.

Clara Schumann is known to have played Streicher instruments in concert, although the piano she played for that London recital was most likely a Broadwood. It is possible, though, that she played Brahms’s studio piano when she paid him a visit; their friendship and mutual musical consultations are legendary. Carl Maria von Weber and Ludwig van Beethoven both thought highly of Streichers, and Beethoven, who knew the namesake couple personally, owned some, though none of those are extant today. At least some of the instruments of their time had four pedals: una corda, bassoon, moderator, and sustaining, like the Fredericks’ Katholnig featured two weeks ago here; some had five, with a Janissary or Turkish pedal — imitating a drum with a bar falling on all the bass-register strings, or a beater that struck the major rib on the bottom of the soundboard and a hammer striking a bell and/or cymbal on the inside wall of the case.

The company began using one-piece cast-iron frames, copying from Steinway’s, in some of its instruments in the late 1860s, becoming more industrial and somewhat less skilled-craft and workmanship oriented for the mechanics. (The fine craft and workmanship went into the finishing details of the cases.) But Streicher also continued to make pianos with wooden frames and two iron tension bars, like this one, and to use the Viennese action — the last firm to do so, until its demise. Its sound is, therefore, deeper, sometimes seeming to rise from the depths of the instrument, warmer, velvety, singing with clear notes that merge and blend in waves and remain less distinct, and less crystalline than those of the Pleyel featured last week, for example. It is also considerably less powerful. Most of the music played didn’t really call for dramatic volume contrasts, and Joshua didn’t really explore its potential for dynamic differences and nuances.

The recital opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, Op. 31/3, “Die Jagd” (The Hunt), composed in 1802. This was followed by a short work by Felix Mendelssohn, the Allegretto grazioso in A, Op. 62/6, “Frühlingslied” (Spring Song), dating from 1842-44, with an abridged version of Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, 1837, revised in 1850; fourteen of the eighteen numbers — 3, 7, 15, and 16, were omitted. The second half opened with J.S. Bach’s Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F, S. 971 (Italian Concerto), published in 1735. Another Mendelssohn piece followed, his Prelude in e, Op. 35/1, from his 1837 Six Preludes & Fugues; the accompanying Fugue was not played. Two works by Chopin concluded the recital: the Nocturne in g, Op. 15/3 from 1833, and the Fantaisie-Impromptu No. 4 in c#, Op. 66, from 1835, heard last week performed on the Fredericks’ 1845 Pleyel (here). Joshua used scores throughout this performance. (She played the Mendelssohn “Frühlingslied” on the Frederick Collection’s 1846 Streicher (Note the different fallboard text.) on October 7, 2007, and an all-Beethoven program on the Katholnig on October 8, 2006.)

Between the numbers, Joshua talked about Clara Schumann’s career, playing style, and programming habits. She was the first to give recitals featuring works from different periods, almost always including a piece by Bach, whose music was revived by her close friend Felix Mendelssohn, whose efforts she was thereby supporting. She was also the first to restrict her recitals to solo piano rather than mixing that with chamber music, and thereby to shorten performances to lengths more palatable to the public than was the case in earlier periods – think of the notoriously long ones Beethoven gave, for example; although this one, at quite a bit over two hours, was long by modern standards. She pointed out that she had opened the Beethoven sonata with a brief improvisation, a sort of prelude, common at the time, to get the audience’s attention and allow it to settle down before beginning the actual piece. She explained the omission of the four numbers from the Davidsbündlertänze, expanding on the note in the printed program – it was based on the performance by Clara’s best pupil, Fanny Davies, who reconstructed this London recital earlier. She read quotes by Clara, some of her students, and contemporary critics, extracted from Nancy Reich’s 1985 biography, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman. She also thanked her enthusiastic audience by performing an encore not on Clara’s program, the appropriate Träumerei, from Kinderszenen, Op. 15/7 (1838), by Robert Schumann.

This recital broke with the standard Frederick Collection series’ format of featuring music entirely of the period of the featured piano, such as the Beethoven cello music pair of two weeks ago or last week’s Chopin recital. The break was justified by the historical nature of the program and the nature of Clara’s program itself. This is not the first recital to break with the tradition, but it seemed less successful to my ears than some earlier ones that I had heard. The instrument is not very well suited to the Bach, for example, composed for a harpsichord with distinct plucked-string notes, and Beethoven surely never imagined his “Hunt” sonata sounding quite like this, even though he had pianos with Viennese actions; the notes on his instruments remained clearer and more distinct from each other. The name was not given to the work by the composer, but was no doubt inspired by the seeming galloping rhythms in the Scherzo and Presto movements, by the ‘horn call’ theme in the Presto, and perhaps by the complete absence of a slow movement, the slowest being the Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso, the last one the composer wrote for a piano sonata. The instrument worked very well for the Mendelssohn pieces and even for the Chopin, although the Op. 66 Fantaisie-Impromptu was much better realized on the Pleyel last week.

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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