Baroque piano: an oxymoron to some, became a reality to those who heard one at Bach’s birthday celebration at First Lutheran Church this past Saturday. Its builder Kerstin Schwarz came from her workshop in Zerbst, Germany to maintain and present the instrument to the astonished crowd. Artem Belogurov, a leading performer of historical keyboards specializing in early pianos but going far beyond them temporally in both directions, used it to deliver a provocative recital of Bach and Handel. In remakes given before the recital, host Jonathan Wessler pointed out that this repertoire is often heard on harpsichord and on modern piano, so this performance represents something in between the two.
The instrument resides in the private collection of its commissioner Christopher Greenleaf, a veteran recording engineer and concert-series curator who filmed the recital. Throughout the day, he sparred with many (including myself) who referred to it as a fortepiano. He averred that the term “fortepiano,” used in reference to a piano which is not some form of Steinway, is a 19th-century construct reifying a distinction between the existing piano and Mozart’s. This instrument is a copy of the 1726 piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) held in the Musikinstrumenten Museum at Leipzig University. These dates sit neatly within the accepted Baroque period, and any claim that a ‘baroque piano’ does not exist requires willful ignorance. There is debate if Bach ever played one of Cristofori’s pianos, but he certainly knew Gottfried Silbermann’s copies, and (arguably more importantly) they were used in Bach’s time.
From my experience, playing the Baroque piano is similar to playing a harpsichord but perhaps more comparable to playing a clavichord (though this never came up in conversation). This piano lacks a lever to lift the dampers, so there is no way to prolong the sound after a key is released. The touch is very heavy. The keys must be depressed forcefully to produce any sizable tone since the short hammer blow distance (they only move a scant two centimeters) restricts the energy delivered to the strings. The papier-mâché covered with deerskin hammerheads produce softer articulation than a harpsichord and less pop than later Classical-era pianos. Its great length (nearly eight feet) allows the vibrations to develop fully, resulting in a clear tone. While the single escapement action allows control of dynamics, the range is quite limited and best used to make crescendos and decrescendos in a line. A privative una corda mechanism, whereby the player pulls the keyboard slightly to the side so the hammers only hit one of the two strings, can be used to create contrasting forte and piano sections like switching between the two manual of a harpsichord.
The Partita in E Minor, BWV 830, is notoriously difficult to phrase at the harpsichord. The first movement, Toccata alla breve, features arpeggios with harsh suspensions that resolve on weak beats. While a harpsichordist can attempt to shade notes by overholding some to soften the articulation of others, the action of a harpsichord produces all notes at the same dynamic volume. Belogurov glided over this texture with ease using the sensitive dynamics of the Baroque piano. He crescendoed through rolled chords emphasizing the crunch and softened the resolution. Modern pianists are often criticized for this, but the transparent tone of the baroque piano and Belogurov’s subtlety of technique realized the music effectively.
In the Corrente, the piano produced too little sound to clearly articulate the 32nd-note figuration in the right hand. Nevertheless, the humanized vocal inflection imparted to the melismatic runs outweighed these blurry moments. This same dynamic shading allowed Belogurov to interpret cadential flourishes in dance movements as reflective afterthoughts instead of the harsh fanfares heard from harpsichords. The Sarabande best displayed this dynamic sensitivity in the varied shades of expression Belogurov produced in the arpeggiation throughout the movement. He used the una corda mechanism the most in this movement to veil the sound at its most poignant moments and to leave the audience levitating after its nearly inaudible ending.
Handel’s style of writing is substantially different from that of Bach. Perhaps reflecting the nature of contemporary English harpsichords, such as the bentside spinet, Handel uses the extreme registers of the keyboard, exaggerating the tonal differences between the left and right hands. Belogurov played into this texture, allowing the bass notes of toll beneath the melody. He also used more extreme dynamic shaping to emphasize the stronger melodic line in Handel’s music. In a brilliant move, Belogurov used dynamic control to produce notes inégales without altering their rhythm.