On October 16, 2011, a special recital was held in Ashburnham apart from the Frederick Collection’s 27th Fall Historical Piano Concerts season. This one was a benefit held in the midst of the two dozen pianos that constitute the bulk of the Collection, housed in the 1890 brick building that was the former home of the town’s Stevens Library
Two Boston-based musicians, St. Petersburg-born pianist Constantine Finehouse and Moldova-born violinist Olga Caceanova, donated their services to support the Collection; listeners, including myself, donated what they wished. Because of the setting, I had hoped that Finehouse, who has appeared on the concert series before, would construct a program that would allow him to play at least two instruments. Alas, the number of attendees sitting on antique kitchen chairs, old café chairs like mine, folding chairs, piano benches and stools arrayed down the center aisle and between piano tails, with some standing, made rearranging the seating impossible. Thus he played the entire program on the Collection’s 1893 Érard, the same model as Ravel’s instrument from 1908. Readers of my earlier texts will already know what is coming: my elation over the choice! This instrument, serial number 70277, is just ¾ inch shy of 7 feet long, is parallel strung with single overspun strings on a separate bridge for the seven lowest bass notes, double-strung in the upper bass octave, and triple-strung across the remainder of the registers, with 85 keys, a range of about 7.5 octaves. The frame is composite with metal parts to attach the strings mounted on a wooden frame and with five metal tension bars above and parallel to them to strengthen it. The case is rosewood with a brass line inlay around the edge, and there are the standard two pedals: una corda and damper, mounted on the firm’s signature lyre-shaped lyre.
The program, played without intermission, opened with César Franck’s Sonata in A (1886) for violin and piano. This was followed by two solo piano works played from memory as a set: Alexander Scriabin’s Two Poems, Op. 32, No. 1 in F-sharp and No. 2 in D (1903), played without pause, and after a brief one, Frédéric Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat, Op. 61 (1845-46). Caceanova returned for the two closing pieces: Fritz Kreisler’s 1915 arrangement of Enrique Granados’ Spanish Dance Op. 37 No. 5 (1890) and Ravel’s show-stopping Tzigane: Rhapsodie de concert (1924).
Caceanova plays an instrument, on loan to her from a foundation, that was made in Milan in 1795 by Carlo Antonio Testore, member of the talented family of luthiers, two of whose cellos were heard recently in recitals here, one just three weeks ago. It is bright and powerful, and she handled it magnificently. She varied her physical involvement with the music and her instrument in accordance with the piece: restrained and elegant for the Franck, a bit more showy in the Kreisler arrangement and appropriately flashy à la gypsy for the Ravel. She played ravishingly, with great precision and with little vibrato, which all too often in lesser artists disguises lack of skill and denotes imprecision. She played the Ravel from memory; though she had scores on her stand for the Franck and the Kreisler/Granados and dutifully turned the pages during breaks, she was clearly not consulting them, as she played with her eyes closed. Finehouse was not wedded to his scores for the Franck and the Ravel either, clearly having played them often enough to have them all but committed to memory. His performance style was appropriately restrained and less varied than Caceanova’s.
Finehouse understands that it is about the music, not the musician, the sound, not the show, in the French piano-playing tradition dating back to Chopin, who is reputed to have asked his pupils, when they withdrew their fingers from the keys and their hands from the keyboard in an abrupt upward flourish, “Vous brûlez-vous?” (“Did you burn yourself?”). It’s a piano, not a kitchen stove! He produced marvelous music, and obtained glorious sounds from this one, which is quite different from the Érards that Chopin knew, such as the 1840 one heard here last week. It has a greater range and is more powerful, and, while preserving the firm’s legendary clarity of the individual notes, has a lesser diversity among the registers, yet without totally obliterating their differences. Consequently, Finehouse’s fortissimos, no doubt also amplified by the bright acoustic of the room, were probably louder than Chopin’s would have been, but he controlled the dynamic differences masterfully, as he did in all the works. Although the Chopin calls for more pianississimos than do the others, the composer would likely have been as pleased as I. The Scriabin was appropriately more Russian in playing style, but by no means extravagant.
My advice: you should make a bee-line to the venue at the appointed hour if you see Finehouse’s and Caceanova’s names on a billboard or in a calendar! You are likely to have a musical experience that will remain in your memory for a long time, as this one will surely do in mine. His next appearance here will be on May 20, 2012 at 4pm, program and instrument to be announced.