For his third appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts Series, the 27th spring iteration now expanded to six from the four or five of earlier years, Constantine Finehouse chose the collection’s ca. 1830 Tröndlin. This Viennese-style instrument built in Leipzig by a fairly short-lived but high-quality firm was a favorite of many mid-19th-century German Romantic composers, but only a dozen or so examples remain in the world — some in museums, so not available for performances. For more complete details consult my earlier BMInt review here of Finehouse’s recital that opened the 2010 season and for which he chose the same instrument. In his 2008 appearance, Finehouse played a mostly Brahms program on the collection’s 1871 Streicher, an instrument similar to Brahms’s. (Finehouse has also played two fundraising recitals in the Stevens Library building where the collection is housed.)
Finehouse opened with Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op. 17, composed in 1836, one of his more contemplative, reflective, serious pieces. It is not as immediately appealing, captivating, and engaging as his popular Papillons, Op. 2 (1829-’31), Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834-’35), and Kinderscenen, Op. 15 (1838), but perhaps better suited than they for showing off the capabilities and potential of the instrument, the differences among its registers – the bass has a reedy texture, the soprano, a bell-like rather than chime-like ring – and its dynamic range, sufficiently broad if nowhere near that of a modern instrument, and allowing the listener to focus on and savor them. It always takes a few minutes for one’s ears to adapt to the different, more mellow sound, but once the adaptation has been achieved, the music always sounds more ‘right’ on it. Finehouse played the entire program from memory and his mastery of the score showed in the fluidity of his rendering of it and the smoothness of the changes to convey the shifts in the work’s moods. He gave a very sensitive and delicate reading in what may well be the sound world for and in which it was composed.
After the pause, Finehouse played two short Chopin pieces, the Nocturne No. 13 in C, op. 48/1 (1841) and his last Étude, in C, Op. 25/12 (1836). The Tröndlin is likely more powerful than the Pleyels that Chopin preferred, though less so than the Érards that were their Parisian competitors, which he liked better when playing in larger halls because they produced a greater sound with a lesser effort. But the Tröndlin suits his music extremely well. The sound was magical, and although Finehouse may have played some moments at ff, while Chopin himself was said to have rarely exceeded mf, nothing was overpowering as all too often happens on modern instruments, so these works, too, could really be savored; one could describe them as serene. His playing style is very calm, composed, and restrained, much like Chopin’s, not nearly as bombastic, demonstrative, and distracting as that of many pianists interpreting Romantic works.
The concluding work was the Sonata No. 3 in C, op. 2/3 (1796) by Beethoven, again, not one of the more popular of the composer’s works in the genre, but one that perhaps ideally shows off this instrument. Coincidentally, I happened to have heard the same work performed by a pianist of the same generation, the UMass Amherst Assistant Professor of Piano Gilles Vonsattel, played, also from memory, on a modern Steinway (which could use some work) in Bezanson Recital Hall on the school’s campus on Friday evening, another fine performance that was clear enough in my memory for a ready ‘compare and contrast’ experience. Both pianists are so fine that it is not an issue of which rendering was the better, but rather which seemed more natural, more ‘right’ for the score, which instrument came across as fitting it more like a glove. As brilliant, crisp, and perfect as was Vonsattel’s performance, Finehouse’s equally skilled one seemed smoother and somehow better – this is a somewhat ‘choppy’ piece in overall feel. That is perhaps precisely the problem: a modern instrument is simply too brilliant for this music to really sound correct when played on it. We all know how much Beethoven liked and sought power, to the point of rendering some pianofortes unplayable (though some of that may have been the result of his increasing deafness and the consequent need to strike harder to obtain an audible sound), but his music is more than power; it is also melody and harmony: he was a late-Classical, early-Romantic era composer, not a late-Romantic era one, and it is those aspects that the Tröndlin allows to shine, as they did under Finehouse’s fingers. Of course, although Tröndlins were the official piano in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in Mendelssohn’s time, and certainly more powerful than that of instruments of the time of the composition nearly 35 years earlier, the sound wouldn’t be adequate for today’s huge concert halls.
The Ashburnham audience was quickly on its feet at the conclusion and Finehouse rewarded it with an encore of an entirely different sort: Russian. (Finehouse was born in St. Petersburg.) Romantic pianist Alexander Ziloti’s (1863-1945) arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in b. It worked amazingly and enchantingly well on the Tröndlin. Afterwards, I listened to Finehouse discuss with another patron the challenges of performing on both modern and period instruments, especially in rapid succession. He had played a recital (not all the same repertoire) the day before in Queens on a modern Steinway and was feeling the lack of adequate time to adjust his hands mentally to the different requirements: less stretch of the fingers to reach the keys and less pressure to obtain the desired sound. He may have made some mistakes, but I didn’t detect them.