The piano in the hall (the sanctuary of the Community Church) in Ashburnham on Sunday afternoon for the second of the Frederick Collection’s 27th Spring Season of Historical Piano Concerts was the 1877 Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert, popular with many pianists who play in the series. For details about the instrument, you can look at an earlier BMInt review here of a concert in which it was used. It is perhaps the most extraordinary piano I have ever heard, “in the flesh” and recorded, and the Blaich-Leverett Piano Duo put together an extraordinary program of duet and solo works dating from 1871 to 1993 to execute on it, playing from scores throughout.
Tanya Blaich is Boston-based, teaching in the NEC’s collaborative piano and voice departments and coordinator of its Liederabend Program, as well as having taught at its Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. Monica Jakuc Leverett is Elsie Erwin Sweeney Professor Emerita of Music at Smith College. One of the works on the program was commissioned by and is dedicated to her; another was by a close friend of hers. Both composers are women born in 1947, and both works were written in 1993, most likely conceived and composed for (on?) a modern Steinway.
The duo opened the recital with an 1889 work by Ferruccio Busoni, composer that most pianists shy away from because of the reputation of his music being simultaneously difficult and unapproachable, if not unpalatable, for the general public; but this was a real gem, totally unlike most works for piano duo where bravura and display often play a significant role. Finnländische Volksweisen, op. 27, dating from 1889, has two movements, marked Andante molto espressivo and Andantino-Vivace, which tells you immediately that sensitivity of expression, not showy display, will be the goal, with a more fast-paced tempo at the end; and that is precisely what the musicians delivered, delicately nuanced, allowing the broad variety of the instrument’s potential to be quietly but ravishingly displayed. Busoni was likely familiar with the Érard sound, since the firm’s products were found all over Europe during his lifetime (1866-1924), and the differences among this instrument’s registers and its more melodious tone enriched the work, making it especially attractive.
Blaich followed this with Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine, published in 1905, but in fact a composite of a one-movement piece, the work’s first, marked Modéré, having been submitted for a magazine-sponsored competition two years earlier in which no winner was declared because his was the sole submission, and the rules required a 75-measure work; this has 77. In order not to let it go unused, Ravel decided to add two movements to make a miniature sonata, with his then favorite Baroque dance tempo as its second “Mouvement de menuet” and an “Animé” concluding one. Ravel never owned a make of piano other than an Érard, although his were all either uprights or smaller 6.5-7 foot ones; his last is still in his final home in Montfort-L’Amaury, now a museum – wait for the photo to scroll in or scroll down/around to find it, so we know therefore, that this instrument’s sound was precisely what he had in mind, and I must say that in all the times I have heard it, live and recorded, it never sounded so good or so right, its nuances showing in a way they generally do not on a modern instrument: Blaich’s reading was simply exquisite.
The first half concluded with the two 1993 works, first Water’s Edge for four hands by Hillary Tann, a native of Wales, now professor of piano at Union College in Schenectady, NY, (where this reviewer was once a High School French teacher); the work was a commission for the NY State Music Teachers Association. Jakuc Leverett read from Tann’s statements on her inspiration for the work. It evokes the play of light against the surface of the water, and, like Debussy’s La Mer, it covers the passing of a day by the water in its three movements: “Dawn Light,” From the Riverbed,” and “Toward Dusk,” evoking the changes resulting from the different times. The liquid resonance of the instrument seemed perfect for the music. Jakuc Leverett then played Toccata Prestidigitata by Karen Tarlow, who was present in the hall. For me, it brought immediately to mind the Toccata from Ravel’s 1917 Le Tombeau de Couperin in its style and its demands on the pianist, and like that Toccata, seemed perfectly served by the Érard, as if it had also been conceived for it. The pianist enjoyed an enthusiastic hug from the composer! It would be difficult to imagine the perfect performance being better served by a modern piano, so luxurious it seemed.
The second half of the program was devoted to games: first, four selections from Games by György Kurtág, a series that he has been collecting/composing since 1973 and written to be played with his wife and inspired by watching their children playing with the piano’s keyboard as if it were a toy, running their fingers up and down it, striking keys at random, and later seeking to find again the sonorities that they had found by chance. The movements chosen were entitled: “Flowers, We Are, Mere Flowers…(embracing sounds),” “Playing With Infinity,” “Bells – Homage to Stravinsky,” and “Homage to Mihály Halmágyi.” Again, the instrument’s resonances brought these images to life; the works were simply magnificent, although entirely modern and not in the least Romantic.
The concluding work, for which the duo switched positions with Blaich taking the bass register which Jakuc Leverett had previously handled in the duet pieces, was Georges Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, op. 22, a set of 12 pieces composed in 1871 that evoke traditional French games or toys, such as “Saute-mouton”[Leap-frog], “La toupie” (The top], or La poupée [The doll], most of which are also known to American children. Each piece also has a characterizing or genre word, such as “Caprice,” “Impromptu,” and “Berceuse” respectively for these three. The concluding piece: Le Bal “Galop” brings to mind Offenbach’s “Can-can.” Bizet died the year Ravel was born, 1875, two years before this piano was made, but the Érard sound, whose ring enhances their characteristics, was surely already familiar to Bizet, himself a fine and accomplished pianist. This side of him is not well known today; he wrote other music for solo piano that is rarely programmed here. The piece is full of humorous touches, and not only did the audience enjoy them, it also enjoyed watching the facial expressions and body language of the pianists who were clearly having as much fun as if they were children playing again, without missing a note or playing a bad one, need it be said. The audience was immediately on its feet at the conclusion. Blaich and Jakuc Leverett have been playing together for some five or six years now and have discovered other shared interests that led to sharing other experiences; their partnership at the keyboard is as smooth and polished as they come. This concert was truly stellar in every way.
This instrument will be featured on two more performance this season: next Sunday, May 13, in a (nearly) all-Debussy program entitled Clair de lune, that will be half solo piano (Hsia-Jung Chang) and half vocal (Deborah Berioli, soprano) with piano; and on June 3, the last concert of the season, with Stephen Porter playing the complete Debussy Préludes. So readers will have opportunities to make the acquaintance of this unique and captivating piano. It has also been used in a recording, available from the Frederick Collection, of French works for piano four-hands that includes a selection of six of the Jeux d’enfants pieces performed by the Transcontinental Piano Duo Elaine Greenfield and Janice Meyer Thompson.