Why play or listen to an early or “period” piano? An instrument which may have significant limitations compared to a precisely made and carefully calibrated modern instrument, and surely “better” and infinitely more sturdy and reliable than an old piano?

Aside from the visual aesthetic of period pianos (many are very attractively designed, with fretwork music desks, elegantly turned legs, and veneered or inlaid cases), playing a period piano reveals how the instrument informed and guided the composer, and how composers such as Beethoven, Schubert or Chopin responded to the piano technology available at the time, a technology which was developing very rapidly.

Dismiss any fanciful notions of “musical time travel” when playing or hearing such instruments: the intention is not to transport us back to a Viennese Schubertiade or a nineteenth-century Parisian salon, because it is impossible to know exactly how these instruments sounded to the composers who wrote for them. But these instruments do offer us a direct connection to the music: we are so used to hearing the great works in the repertoire played on a modern grand piano (usually a Steinway), whose sound is far more homogenised, brighter and even across the entire register, that it is easy to forget that the style and the soundworld of piano pieces written prior to the 1850s are intrinsically linked to the instruments.

Playing these period pianos, many of which are very delicate and require a different touch from the “pounding” that a robust modern piano can take, offers special insights into compositional details such as articulation, tempo, dynamics (the “double escapement” mechanism pioneered by French piano maker Érard, for example, enabled the pianist to achieve very fine pianissimo playing), use of the pedal, touch and key release, shorter sound decay, musical semantics and aesthetics. These instruments may be more softly-spoken than their modern counterparts, instruments designed to project into the largest concert halls, but their voices are richly-hued and characterful with myriad overtones. An 1820s Conrad Graf fortepiano, for example, an instrument with which Schubert would have been very familiar, has a bass sound which recalls bassoons, horns and kettledrums, and a silvery treble allowing for great clarity of articulation and music thought (listen to the final movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, and you’ll hear every single note in that whirlwind of sound). Once the ear has tuned in to the soundworld of these instruments, surprisingly varied colours, textures, articulation and expression are revealed.

The Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov has made several recordings using period instruments, and his latest disc features music by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky on instruments from the 1820s, 1837 and 1875, and a modern concert Steinway (he has also performed this programme live on similar instruments), offering listeners and audiences the chance to experience four great works of the piano repertoire interpreted in their original instrumental environment. It’s a fascinating exploration of familiar repertoire through the medium of different pianos and how the composers responded to them. Meanwhile, the organisers of the International Chopin Competition have launched a new competition in which participants will perform on period instruments. The inaugural competition takes place in September this year and I hope this competition will offer competitors and audiences something more than a novelty or “living museum recital”, and will cultivate sensitivities and sensibilities in pianists, who can appreciate and respond to what period pianos provide.

Kingston Chamber Concerts launch, Thursday 18th May 2017

John Irving, fortepiano

Haydn: Sonata in A flat, Hob.XVI:46
Bach: Prelude & Fugue in F sharp minor (48, Bk.2)
Mozart: Sonata in C, K.330
Haydn: Sonata in E flat, Hob.XVI:49
Bach: Contrapunctus 8 from The Art of Fugue
Mozart: Sonata in B flat, K.570

For one night only the audience at the inaugural recital of the new Kingston Chamber Concerts (KCC) series at All Saint’s Church, Kingston-upon-Thames, were offered a fascinating and beautifully presented glimpse into the soundworld of Vienna in the late eighteenth century with a recital on fortepiano by John Irving. The concert was a treat for all sorts of reasons, not least because Kingston is a mere 15 minute bus ride from where I live – a privilege to enjoy such splendid music so close to home.

KCC is the initiative of local resident Leslie Packer and the stated aim of the series is to provide a platform for young artists and local performers in a friendly and convivial setting – the East End Cafe at All Saint’s Church. The audience were seated around small tables, reminisicent of the way music was enjoyed prior to 1850 when the modern concert format as we know it today developed. “Good wine” is also part of the KCC experience and my friends and I enjoyed a glass of delicious Riesling on arrival (and a second glass in the interval!). This undoubtedly added to the pleasure of the evening.

John Irving is an internationally-recognised Mozart scholar and is Professor of Performance Practice at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire. His concert programme, Keyboard Music from the Age of Enlightenment, featured piano sonatas by Haydn and Mozart, together with a Prelude and Fugue and a excerpt from the Art of Fugue by J S Bach. He had brought his McNulty fortepiano into the church especially for the concert. This instrument is a copy of a fortepiano by Walter, and one which both Haydn and Mozart would have known and played. The sound of the fortepiano is at first a little disconcerting: it’s more “clangy” than a modern piano and its voice is less resonant, but in the opening sonata by Haydn (in A flat, Hob.XVI:46) wonderful colours and orchestral tones were immediately revealed, from deeply resonant bassoons and horns in the bass to trumpet fanfares in the treble. The lighter action of the instrument, compared to a modern piano, made for really sparkling passage work, while the slow movement spun elegant melodic lines. The entire performance was imbued with much joy and wit.

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John Irving

The playing was interspersed with interesting commentaries, which illuminated both music and instrument, and gave us a flavour of the musical life and times in Vienna in the late eighteenth century, including an amusing anecdote about one of Haydn’s pupils who asked for the cross-hands section in the Sonata in E flat Hob.XVI:49 to be made easier so that she could play it. John also explained the reason for including works by Bach in the programme: Mozart was familiar with Bach’s keyboard music and transcribed many of his fugues for string ensemble. Meanwhile, the Art of Fugue was not specifically composed for harpsichord and its intricate contrapuntal lines and voices suit ensemble playing. The Prelude & Fugue in f minor, from the second book of Bach’s 48, felt curiously modern compared to the Haydn, elegantly shaped, with an austere melancholy; while the excerpt from the Art of Fugue was sensitively voiced, building in grandeur as the myriad lines of counterpoint interwove to create unexpectedly piquant moments of dissonance.

The sonatas by Mozart (in C, K.330 and B flat, K.570) revealed more of the colourful treble of the fortepiano in their sprightly opening and closing movements, while the slow movements were replete with operatic arias and long-spun melodies. Here, John improvised in the repeated sections, a practice which was common in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

This was a really delightful concert, engaging, informative and very enjoyable, and I wish KCC success with the first season. For more information about the series, please contact kingstonchamberconcerts@gmail.com / 020 8549 1960