In their first performance on the Frederick Collection’s Concerts series in Ashburnham, on September 18, pianist Jennifer Ruland Morlock and cellist Arkady Beletsky, both members of the faculty of the Indian Hill Music School in Littleton, offered a program “From Russia to France with Love . . .” The program was mostly short Russian and French works dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in two groups separated by the intermission. Morlock chose a French piano from the Collection, the 1877 Érard “extra-grand modèle de concert,” the first year this model was made, serial number 51059, perhaps one of the Collection’s most distinctive and impressive instruments. It is a bit over 8.5 feet long, with a rosewood case, a composite frame (wood with a metal plate to attach the strings) and metal tension bars, and is parallel strung, triple in the upper and middle registers, double for the upper bass notes, and single wrapped coil strings in the bottommost octave; it has 90 keys, with two additional ones in the bass. The model continued to be made essentially unchanged well into the 1920s. When you have a winner, you stick with it! (I have appended at the end of this review more on Érard piano history.)
Beletsky’s cello was made in Milan by a member of the Testore family of luthiers, father Carlo Giuseppe (c. 1665-1716), and two sons Carlo Antonio (1688-after 1764) and Paolo Antonio (1690-after 1760), but its nearly illegible label prevents establishment of an exact date. Beletsky’s bow was made by Ludwig Christian August Bausch in the 19th century.
Many of the Russian works on the program have French titles, showing how much the Russian school admired and was influenced by France. Most of the short selections were chestnuts of the repertoire: Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in d, Op. 19/4 (1873), Alexander Glazuvnov’s Chant du ménestrel (1900) and Sérénade espagnole (1888), Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op. 34/14, (1912), transcribed by Leonard Rose, with the duo; a piano solo, Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Op. 23/4 and /5, in D and g respectively. Then the first half closed with a relatively unknown mid-century (1941) backward-looking Impromptu in G for the duo by Alexander Arutiunian.
The second half opened with Jules Massenet’s Mélodie, Op. 10/5, (1866), followed by the sole long work of the recital, Claude Debussy’s Sonate pour violoncello et piano (1915). Morlock offered some comments about the piano, the differences and pleasures of its sound and of playing it, and read the English translation of the Aloysius Bertrand poem that inspired it. A piano solo of Maurice Ravel’s Ondine, No. 1 from his Gaspard de la Nuit (1910) was next, then the duo closed with Gabriel Fauré’s Élégie in c, Op. 24 (1883), Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886) and his Allegro appassionata in b, Op. 43 (1875). The entire audience was instantly on its feet for a prolonged ovation for this magical performance; the artists interrupted it to decline to play an encore because of the length of the program and the hour.
Normally, I shudder at the perspective of a program of ‘war horses’ such as these, having already heard them countless times in concert and in the air. However, I awaited this one with interest — apprehension over artists unknown to me notwithstanding — because I do know and love this Érard. Not only was I not disappointed; I was enthralled, as was a friend who accompanied me. These consummate artists offered new and mind-opening interpretations and perspectives on many of them, which they were able to realize in large measure thanks to their instruments that offer possibilities of colors and nuances modern ones cannot.
The piano, thanks to its varied stringing, offers differences across the registers. The upper one is bright, the lower one warmly resonant; there was a reverberant repeated bass note in the Debussy that stood out particularly. It has a depth, richness, and ring that are more about music than power, yet without sacrificing any of the latter. It was obviously more noticeable in the solo piano works than in those for the duo.
The Ondine was absolutely ravishing, virtually shimmering; Morlock played it from memory, eyes closed as Patricia Frederick dutifully turned the pages of the score on the music stand. The Rachmaninoff Preludes showed off the possibilities of the instrument especially well across the registers and dynamic ranges. But there were stellar moments in the duo works as well, especially in the French ones: the Fauré Élégie was not as mournful as it often seems, for example. My friend said he heard notes in it that he had never heard before, so positively changed it was; indeed, we both turned and looked at each other, eyes and mouths open at its beauty. The Debussy allowed us to hear in a new way the modern sounds within traditional forms that he aimed for. Beletsky played with precision and soul that made his instrument’s shine forth, too. What a revelation to hear these works as their composers conceived and wrote them!
Readers will have two more opportunities to hear this instrument this season, on October 2 and 23, and a chance to hear a different Érard, from 1840, on October 9. I’ll be there, and my friend will be joining me again for the first one at least! Hearing these instruments is an ear-opening experience, allowing you to perceive how French composers imagined and performed their music, something entirely different from the way we now generally receive it from the ubiquitous homogenized Steinways that they did not know.
For piano history aficionados, here is more on Érards:
Sébastien Érard, originally from Strasbourg and spelled Erhard, founded his firm in Paris around 1770. He initially made harpsichords and began making pianos, the first a square, in 1777; he also made harps, and it is he who added pedals to them. His brother Jean-Baptiste joined the firm in 1781; in 1792 they opened a branch in London to escape the hazards of the French Revolution and returned to Paris in 1796 (keeping the London branch open) when the first grand was made. His pianos consequently used the “English action” rather than the “Viennese”; he abandoned knee levers for pedals in 1783. Jean-Baptiste’s son Pierre-Orphée carried on the firm after Sébastien’s death in 1831. (Jean-Baptiste died in 1828.). After Pierre-Orphée’s death in 1855, the firm passed to his widow, Camille Février, who was assisted by her brother-in-law; in 1873 she took on Amédée Blondel as her partner, and at her death in 1889 his son Albert-Louis became the head of the firm. It patented several improvements, some of which, such as the agraffe, invented by Sébastien in 1808, which keeps the string in a fixed position even when struck by the hammer, and the double escapement that allows rapid repetition of the same note without removing the finger from the key, patented by Pierre in London in 1821, are used on pianos to this day. Érards were the official pianos of the Paris Conservatoire for many years, and the company remained in existence well into the 20th century, but the after-effects of the Great Depression and WW II ultimately caused it to fail in 1971. Érards were well known and esteemed throughout Europe and were the preferred instruments of many 19th-century European concert pianists, including Franz Liszt; Beethoven also owned an 1803 model, still extant in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. This instrument is the firm’s concert hall model, but is not very different from its instruments of Chopin’s time. The Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories undoubtedly had Érards in the late 19th century because of these connections that continued up to the Revolution in 1917.