Meetings with extraordinary pianos

This week I had the very interesting and unique experience of meeting and playing some rather special pianos which reside at Hatchlands Park, near Guildford, home of the Cobbe Collection of keyboard instruments. The collection includes not just pianos (including a number with very famous and unusual connections, autographs and provenance), but also harpsichords, spinets and organs.

The collection was assembled over forty years by Alec Cobbe with the intention of bringing together instruments by makers who were highly regarded or patronised by composers, and eighteen of the instruments were actually owned or played by some of the greatest classical composers, including Purcell, J C Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bizet, Mahler and Elgar. In 2007 it was revealed that the 1846 Pleyel in the collection was a piano which Chopin had had shipped to England for his concerts here in 1848 (more on this remarkable story here). The piano had been in Alec Cobbe’s collection for twenty years before this discovery about its history and use was made.

Chopin is said to have favoured the French-made Pleyel, praising it for its sound and describing the piano as “the last word in perfection”. I heard the famous Pleyel being played in a recital of music by Chopin at Hatchlands in July 2007, not long after its back story was revealed, (Nocturnes Op 55 and Piano Sonata in B minor) and talking to the pianist afterwards piqued my interest in the instrument, in particular the pianist’s comments about controlling the dynamic range of the instrument.

While I’m not, in general, a big fan of “period instruments”, there are good reasons for experiencing Chopin’s music on the make and era of piano he would have favoured, and for both listener and pianist it highlights several interesting aspects of his piano music which are sometimes overlooked when playing it on a modern piano. In particular, he is said to have favoured the softer, more mellow sound of the Pleyel (over the other great French piano maker, Erard). As the late Charles Rosen observed: “what interested him were subtle gradations of color, inflections of phrasing, and it was what he expected from performers.” (source: The Chopin Touch by Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books). Chopin observed that each finger had a particular characteristic and quality of touch and, therefore, sound: for example, delicate passages were played with the weakest fingers (fourth and fifth), while passages requiring a cantabile melodic line employed the strongest fingers, often one finger alone. This runs counter to the received piano pedagogy of the day – that all the fingers were equal.

In my study of a handful of the Études, Nocturnes, Waltzes and Mazurkas, and the first Ballade with my current teacher we have often discussed the issue of touch and sound quality. Also, the assertion from many of Chopin’s contemporaries and students who heard him play that his dynamic range never rose above mezzo forte, even in passages marked forte. This led me to develop a sense of “warming up the sound” rather than deliberately increasing the volume of sound: this also enables one to retain a beautiful sound, even when playing more loudly. Obviously, one cannot hope to replicate exactly the sounds and textures Chopin himself achieved, but it is possible to employ the techniques he used and taught (absolute suppleness and flexibility of hand and arm, for example, a sense of “ease” at all times).

When we hear Chopin’s music performed on a modern, concert grand piano, we sometimes forget about the subtle shadings, nuances and colours that are possible in his music – and which he probably insisted from his students (and himself when he played). And because, more often than not, we hear Chopin’s music performed in quite large venues, we may also forget that much of his output was of “miniatures” – intimate, interior pieces to be enjoyed at home or in the salon, rather than the concert hall.

The 1846 Pleyel in the Cobbe Collection is not a big piano. It is the kind of instrument one might have at home, a “parlour piano” rather than a concert instrument. Its touch, action and sound were akin to my teacher’s Blüthner (early 20th century). There was a fractional delay between depressing the keys and hearing sound, which was slightly disconcerting at first (as is evidenced in the rather hesitant opening measures in my recording of the Nocturne Op 62 No. 2), but overall this was an “easy” piano to play. It felt quite effortless, in comparison to the Erard (autographed by Thalberg) which was really quite hard work, in particular in trying to achieve a very smooth, singing legato in Liszt’s Sonetto di Petrarca 47.

Since Chopin was said to revere Bach, I felt it was appropriate to play some Bach on the Pleyel (the ‘Adagio’ from the Concerto in D minor after Marcello). In this piece, I really enjoyed the delicate tone of the instrument. Minimal pedal was used throughout and the light action of the piano enabled me to keep the ornaments soft and floating.

The Liszt Sonetto is very much work in progress, but it was nonetheless interesting to attempt to play this, and the Sonetto 104 (from my LTCL programme) on a piano contemporary with their composer. I found the Erard really quite “effortful” (particularly compared to the Pleyel): it seemed one had to work for every single note.

I am very grateful to Alec Cobbe for granting me special access to these interesting pianos (normally reserved for scholars and performers rehearsing for concerts). Visitors to the house, which is managed by the National Trust, can view the collection of keyboard instruments, and also hear some of them in concert. Please see the links at the end of this article for further information.

The Cobbe Collection

Hatchlands Park

Further reading:

Charles Rosen on Chopin (New York Review of Books)

Chopin’s Pedagogy: A Practical Approach (transcript of a presentation given by David Korevaar, University of Colorado)

One thought on “Meetings with extraordinary pianos”

  1. How exciting to play Chopin’s piano. It sounds quite lovely. And how special to hear one of the very pieces I am studying, the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 2. Bravo, Fran, and thanks for bringing this to life.

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