Boston-based pianist Constantine Finehouse chose works composed within a single decade (1836-’46) by two composers born in the same year, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann (1810), for his fourth appearance in the Frederick Historical Piano Concerts series at the Community Church in Ashburnham Sunday. (Finehouse also has played some fundraising recitals in the Collection’s Piano Study Center.) This program devoted its first half to three works by Chopin, and the second to a single one of Schumann’s that made a good mate for the three Chopin pieces in terms of content, form, and style.
Finehouse opened with Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor (1841), one of his rare darker pieces, and the chosen instrument, the collection’s 1846 Johann Baptist Streicher, suited it, with its well-articulated notes and resonant bass, even if it did not offer the soundscape of the Pleyel Chopin owned at the time of composition (or even that of a more powerful Érard). This was followed by the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, (1840-’41) and the closing piece of the set, the Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat Major (1845-’46), both chestnuts of the repertoire. To my ears, these last two works did not work as well on this instrument; the Streicher has greater robustness, a weight that the more crystalline and transparent French instruments do not, consequently the pieces of this set lost their brilliance and lightness.
On the other hand, the Streicher’s soundscape perfectly suited the Schumann Fantasy in C Major (1836, revised 1839). Finehouse’s performance was extraordinary, his concentration and precision in shaping the sound and in expression made the piece come alive. One sensed that he simply was more at home with it. He is not a demonstrative pianist, keeping his hands close to the keys, without flourish even at the end of works, and to an extent the Polonaise-Fantasy is a bravura piece that demands some flashiness. His performance of the Schumann Fantasy was the finest I have heard. Many in the audience must have felt the same, because they were on their feet instantly to applaud it.
About the piano
Finehouse has chosen a different instrument for each of his Frederick Collection appearances. This recital featured the 1846 Johann Baptist Streicher, s/n 3985, an 8-foot grand, wood-framed, with two iron tension bars above the strings parallel to the straight side of the case to prevent the tension from bending the frame, but it has no metal hitchpin plate. The firm’s elaborate middle-period nameplate is on its fall board. (Read the history of the company in an earlier review of a recital played on the Collection’s 1871 Streicher.) Unlike that instrument’s ornate music stand, this one’s is simple: three long horizontal bars with two vertical ends, and why it was raised is a mystery, as Finehouse played from memory. The instrument has 84 keys, with hammers covered by leather, not felt, which gives the sound greater power and enhances the sustained ring. The case is walnut veneer, with the two standard pedals: left una corda and right damper, mounted on a lyre shape. Neither Chopin nor Schumann owned a Streicher and it is entirely possible that neither ever played one. Although Chopin spent time in Vienna on his way from Poland to Paris, performing there in 1829 and 1830, he is likely to have played Grafs, which were more widespread at that time, so soon after Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths, both of whom owned that brand. However, in Vienna their music was surely played on Streichers, and Clara Schumann, who promoted her husband’s music, played them, as did Liszt, who often programmed Chopin in recitals.