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Fredericks of Ashburnham: Two by Two


Braun, Kibbe and Tröndlin (Christopher Greenleaf photo)
Braun, Kibbe and Tröndlin (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Boston-based violinist Heather Braun and BU collaborative piano department chair Shiela Kibbe offered chamber music by Schubert and Schumann for the fourth recital in the Historical Piano Concerts 29th spring series last Sunday. Kibbe played the Frederick Collection’s Tröndlin (details at end).

The first half of the program, which featured one work by each, opened with Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 574, “Grand Duo” (1817, published 1851). This was Schubert’s first major sonata, its predecessors having been sonatinas, and its nickname accurately describes its character: a true partnership of instruments, old and new (Braun’s Cox violin is from 1998). In spite of the vast differences in ages, the instruments worked well together, the piano warm and radiant, the violin bright and crisp; indeed, with its metal strings, it occasionally covered the Tröndlin. Schubert was followed by Schumann’s Drei Romanzen (1849), is indicated as suitable for oboe, violin, or cello, and the three pieces work together almost like a sonatina.

The second half was devoted entirely to Schumann’s Sonata no. 2 in d minor (1851, same year as the first). Kibbe announced that they would not take the lengthy repeat indicated in the second movement but would play the shorter one in the first movement. Here too the music sounded as if written for these very instruments. Kibbe frequently looked discreetly towards Braun to coordinate, as collaborative pianists do, but rarely have I observed it so instinctively and smoothly done. Not only was the playing of both musicians extraordinary, so was their communication.

After the performance, I asked both how they felt about playing the works with this piano. Kibbe said she was impressed by its beauty of sound, and even more with the ease of producing it; the lightest touch on the key is all that’s required to make it sing. Kibbe, however, did not keep her hands as close to the keys as the pianists on the past three HPC programs, although her flourishes and gestures were graceful, not resembling the thrashing and banging sometimes observed with Steinways. Braun said that, having played the program several times with a Steinway, she felt it was much less a struggle to produce the dynamics called for and that some which she had not previously really understood now made sense. She said her biggest regret was that her schedule did not allow her the time to change her strings to gut. For both musicians, then, it was an eye- and ear-opening experience, just as for the listeners: the works sounded light, sparkling, and fresh, indeed new. It was certainly the most polished and loveliest performance of the Schumann I have ever heard. I had never been that enamored of the work, but found it gloriously beautiful, and will have difficulty enjoying it in the future on a modern piano. The Schubert Sonata was magical.

(See here and here for details about the piano, s/n 519. It was made in Leipzig, but its maker learned his craft in Vienna, so the instrument was appropriate for these composers. The hammers are leather-covered, and its middle pedal is unlike that of modern instruments, employing a now disconnected “moderator” which inserted a strip of cloth between hammers and strings to mute the sound.)

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