in: Reviews

June 19, 2011

Why Schubert on a Fortepiano

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Last Thursday, June 16, in the First Lutheran Church of Boston, a Boston Early Music Festival symposium sandwich called “Schubert and the Piano” was presented, the bread being two recitals of Schubert on a fortepiano by Rodney Regier of Maine (based on Viennese instruments of c.1830), and the filling, a conversation between the musicians, Regier himself, and the presenter of the event, Christopher Greenleaf.

The first slice of bread – most delectable Schubert bread – was a selection of songs, with Clara Rottsolk singing soprano and Sylvia Berry playing the piano. It was a lovely selection of songs, artfully disposed into miniature cycles, and splendidly performed. Rottsolk’s acting is excellent and well-judged and she created a few spine-tinging colors, particularly in Die Sterne; the blend and balance of voice and piano were beautiful. The second slice was a selection of solo piano works played by Stephen Porter: the Ungarische Melodie in b, a Moment musical, the Piano Sonata in b-flat, and a transcription (by the artist) of Nacht und Träume. A pleasant performance, if not the most extravagantly colorful.

Indeed, my one quarrel with the morning as a whole was that, while everyone (in program notes and in the symposium) was praising the fortepiano for its ability to play exquisite pianissimi bordering on the inaudible, no one actually offered same, which was a pity. I do, however, disagree with the general assertion that a fortepiano can play softer than a modern Steinway – the Steinway can produce nearly inaudible whispers; it’s just that very few pianists have the courage – not to mention the technical skill – to achieve it. Granted, it is a harder task on a modern piano, but it is not impossible.

The symposium between the recitals was an interesting and informal discussion, partly of how and why the musicians came to work on Schubert using a period piano. The consensus seemed to be in part because it allows a better realization of the score and circumvents the awkward balance problems that are a consequence of the modern piano’s booming sound, and  in part a lament that the use of fortepiano has yet to become a standard, accepted, and common occurrence on this side of the Atlantic. Given the beauty of the instruments, and of the repertoire played using them, it is indeed a shame that such performances are so comparatively rare in the US.

One thing that did become very clear, however, is the semantic difficulty inherent in talking about “Early Music” and what is appropriate to be played in “Early Music Festivals.” Time is a shifting target; to say “early music” now means something very different from what it might have meant in 1500 (had the phrase been used), and very different from what it will mean in 2500. There is a general tendency to assume today that “early music” means pre-classical, or pre-1800, an assumption which leaves the innumerable forms of pre-modern (that is to say, roughly pre-1920s) piano out in the cold, leaving us in danger of missing the delights of piano music from Mozart to Debussy played on instruments for which they were conceived. On the other hand, there is a certain difficulty in convincing people of 2011 that music of 1850, for example, is “early.” “Old,” perhaps, but not “early.” Yet the whole idea of playing period pianos is bound up in the same movement of “historical informed performance” that all the, as it were, standard early music specialists are part of. Perhaps this is an insoluble conundrum, but regardless linguistic difficulties, I, for one, will be very glad to hear more of early pianos, for they, like the modern piano, are splendid instruments – their sounds are too beautiful to be lost.

Tamar Hestrin Grader, a harpsichordist, received her A.B. in Music from Harvard in May.

4 Comments

  1. A well regulated modern piano is certainly capable of vanishingly soft pianissimos- and we expect them from the arsenals of the best artists. My review of Marc-Andre Hamelin from his June 17th concert at Rockport cited his exquisite soft playing.

    What a modern piano doesn’t offer is the harmonic development of individual notes that the more lightly strung early keyboard instrument produces.

    This discussion puts me in mind of Gerald Moore’s autobiography, “Am I Too Loud?”

    Finally, I don’t agree that Schubert performances on early pianos are particularly rare. Think about Malcom Bilson, Joshua Rifkin, Jorg Demus, Paul Badura-Skoda, Seth Carlin- even Peter Serkin…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  2. It’s time to put “early music” to sleep. It’s time for new language to describe historically informed performance. Or, perhaps, we’re coming full circle with “modern” performers intelligently approaching all repertoire. I congratulate the author on challenging the establishment counterculture!

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — June 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm

  3. Ironic that the champions of fortepiano take no account that they are tuning this instrument (and thus Schubert) to the tension of a modern a=440 (which is as recent as 1939)-profound disservice to Schubert.
    Or-please correct me here if they tuned to the lower tension of Schubert’s day.
    Reminds me of Landowska’s sacred rant about the need for harpsichord in Bach and she just waded on in and tuned her Pleyel to a=440-
    OUCH! In both cases.
    Wayne (just an Okie piano playing musician)

    Comment by Wayne McEvilly — June 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

  4. As it happens the instrument used was tuned at A431 (and would have been somewhat lower were it not for the extreme Boston humidity). Pitch is a complex topic, however; there was never such a thing as a single “standard” pitch before the twentieth century, and the variety of pitches used have at different times been both lower and higher than A440.

    Comment by Tamar Hestrin Grader — June 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm

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