For their first joint appearance on the Historical Piano Concerts series on Sunday afternoon, the cello-piano duo of Rebecca Hartke and Gregory Hayes essayed “Across the Channel,” the piano part upon the Collection’s 1893 Érard.
The program opened with a work by Nadia Boulanger, her Three Pieces for Cello & Piano in 1915, of which the first two: Modéré and Sans vitesse et à l’aise (Without speed/haste and relaxed) were played, the second much shorter than the first, and both in slow tempos. They are typical works for performance in salons, with charming melodies, mostly for the ’cello while the piano provides support with occasional moments to shine.
This was followed by Gabriel Fauré’s ’Cello Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 109, written in 1917. From this date, you can see that the duet works in the program, with one exception, were chosen from music composed just before and during WW I. Fauré was at that time head of the Conservatoire de Paris, where Érards were the official piano. He never had an instrument of any other make in his home either, but he never bought one, because the firm lent him one periodically, retrieving the previous one when it delivered the new. As far as I know, the only one still extant is the last one, a 1914 model, serial number 104960, because the firm left it with his widow upon his death in 1924, his son inherited it, and his widow bequeathed it to the Conservatoire’s musical instrument museum where you can see it today [here]; it is un-restored and I believe still in playing condition. It is a model similar to the Fredericks’, although slightly shorter, and this work would therefore have been composed at its keyboard.
WW I’s outbreak spelled the end of Edwardian optimism and of the Belle Époque, which had been, since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871, a true high point in the history of French music and the height of the music salon scene—this work was also likely premièred in one. Fauré’s younger son was fighting in the army at the time. The music is generally somber and troubled, unsettled; the lightness, brilliance, and gaiety are gone, especially in the central slow movement which is very contemplative, meditative, although the outer movements are a bit more expansive. The discouragement was compounded by the fact that Fauré realized by then that he was going deaf.
Next was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folksong, written in 1926, when recovery from the war, in which Vaughan Williams actually fought, was nearly complete. Although Vaughan Williams was a pianist (and also a violinist), the folk tune melody is entirely in the cello part, and is intact, with the piano supplying support and backdrop. The first four are slow, the last two, especially the last, faster. Like the Boulanger, these charming pieces are rarely heard and do not deserve the neglect. Contrary to any initial reservations, this work is appropriate on this recital and instrument because Vaughan Williams traveled across the channel to study with Maurice Ravel (who also visited the Vaughan Williamses in England a couple times) for several months in 1908, and they remained friends and corresponded until Ravel’s death in 1937. Ravel also always owned an Érard, his last one built in 1908, was the same model as this one; it is still present in his home in Montfort-l’Amaury [here] (wait for the photo to appear in the auto-scroll), the small village southwest of Paris where he spent his last 16 years, that is now the Musée Ravel. So Vaughan Williams would actually have heard, perhaps even played Ravel’s piano (not this last one), because the lessons took place in his home, then a Paris apartment (and at no charge, because both Ravel and Fauré adamantly refused payment for any lessons they ever gave). The pieces were ravishing on this piano, much prettier than they would be on a modern one.
The first half of the recital closed with Claude Debussy’s Cello Sonata in D Minor, the same key as Fauré’s, you will note, composed in 1915, the same year as the Boulanger. As in the Fauré, the distress can be felt throughout, especially in the central movement, Sérénade: modérément animé, which seems somewhat improvisatory and was said to have been inspired by the first poem in Albert Girard’s 1884 Pierrot lunaire that tells of a drunken man looking at the moon. This was the most if not the only familiar chamber work on the program.
The second half opened with Debussy, the sole piano solo, his L’Isle joyeuse, completed in 1904 after his vacation on the island of Jersey with his then mistress, later second wife, Emma Bardac. It has been suggested that this piece was initially planned as the final movement of a second Suite bergamasque (the others being Masques and D’un cahier d’esquisses); it has also been said to have been inspired by the famous painting by Watteau, L’Embarquement pour Cythère. While Debussy encountered a Blüthner with its Aliquot stringing system during this trip that led him to buy in 1905 the one he loved and worked at for the rest of his life, he had begun the piece earlier, probably on one of his uprights, either a Pleyel or a Bechstein. He didn’t own an Érard, but surely knew them from his years at the Conservatoire, and this piece sounded stunning on this instrument because of the differences in the tonal colors among the registers that a modern piano simply cannot produce.
Frank Bridge’s two-movement Cello Sonata composed from 1913 to 1917 closed the recital. Bridge, who was a violist, not a pianist, was an avowed pacifist; he wrote the first movement before the war and the second, which subdivides into two parts: Adagio, ma non troppo, and Molto allegro ed agitato, that make the disruption abundantly clear, during it. This movement opens with a series of descending notes in the piano, repeated by the cello, that set the tone and seem like a cry of despair. He brings some of the introductory material back at the end to make it cyclical. This work, too, like much of Bridge’s is not often heard.
This was a recital of serious music, not light, easy listening, but thought-provoking. It was all superbly played, even though the musicians as well as the listeners were suffering from the heat and humidity in the sanctuary that lacks air conditioning. Hartke made comments about each work before the duo played it, as did Hayes for L’Isle joyeuse, often quoting the composers and/or their contemporaries, which were informative and enlightening, helping listeners to understand and appreciate the music. Hayes said, for example, that Debussy claimed he was attempting to include in L’Isle joyeuse every way imaginable of attacking the keyboard, which made me listen to the piece in a different way than I ever had before. The audience, instantaneously on its feet at the conclusion of the performance, would have loved an encore, but accepted that one was not offered.
More on the 1893 Érard:
The instrument 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 7 octaves. The frame is composite with a metal plate to attach the strings mounted on a wooden frame and with five metal tension bars above and parallel to the strings to strengthen it. The attractive case is rosewood veneer with a brass line inlay around the edge, and it has the standard two pedals: una corda and damper, mounted on the firm’s signature lyre-shaped lyre. It has the crystal clear notes, warm bell-like sound, and differences in tonal qualities among the registers that are characteristic of the firm’s products that distinguish them from all other makes. It is not a large concert-hall instrument, but can hold its own in a recital hall as well as in a more intimate setting.
If you are wondering why a French instrument would be chosen for English music, you need only to know that the Érard firm, founded in 1780 (the first Érard instrument was made in 1877) established a presence in London with both a showroom and workshop at the time of the French Revolution. The firm also made harps – its founder, Sébastien Érard, was the inventor of the pedal harp – and various models of both instruments were made in London as well as in Paris for many years. The notorious lengthy military rivalry between the nations was not carried on in the world of music. Piano production was discontinued in London in 1890, with instruments destined for the English market being built in Paris after that, but harp production continued in London until 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Paris essentially did the firm in.