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.

Some years ago I heard two performances of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in the same day: the first was on an 1848 Pleyel from the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, a piano said to have been used by Chopin when he visited England in 1848. The second was at the Royal Festival Hall on a modern concert Steinway model D. It was almost as if I’d heard two completely different pieces of music. If I had to pick one performance, I would probably say I enjoyed the concert at Hatchlands more – the setting which harked back to Chopin’s Parisian salon and the culture of concerts amongst friends, and the more limited dynamic range of the instrument (without loss of pianistic colour), which seemed appropriate for the music. The performance on the modern Steinway seemed more seamless, the sound somehow “smoothed out”.

33_chopin_pleyelb
Chopin’s ‘own’ grand piano (photo: The Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands)

A few months ago I interviewed an international concert pianist who spoke of the difficulties of playing Chopin’s Piano Concertos with a modern orchestra, on a modern piano. “There’s a simplicity/naturalness/delicacy [in this music] which is bordering on impossible on a modern piano. You have to over-articulate and then it doesn’t feel like Chopin. It becomes “Panzer Chopin”. It shouldn’t be forceful. Very often today the pianos are voiced quite aggressively so that they carry to the back of the hall over the orchestra.”

Pianos are now bigger and louder than ever: the invention of the iron frame in the 1820s and the introduction of steel wire strings allowed manufacturers to create much stronger and therefore bigger and noisier pianos. Designed to project in the biggest venues, the largest grand pianos are now over 3 metres in length (the standard Steinway Model D – still the most popular piano in modern concert halls – is 2.74 metres) and modern manufacturing techniques and materials give these instruments immense power. In addition, contemporary taste and trends, in part driven by the wide availability of very high-quality recordings, mean that modern pianos are often voiced in such a way that the sound is very bright, particularly in the upper register.

f308-01
Fazioli F308 model (3.08 metres long)

 

I have been lucky enough to play  Schubert and Chopin-era fortepianos and pianos (including the aforementioned 1848 Pleyel), an instructive experience for it tells one a great deal about the possibilities – and limitations – afforded by the instruments of the day and the kind of soundworld these composers might have known. I’m no period instrument crusader (nor do I buy into the theory that hearing music on period instruments allows us to “hear it as the composers heard it” because that is impossible, and changes in piano technique, performance practice etc influence the way pianists produce sound), but I do think it is important to understand that an 1826 Graf fortepiano, such as Schubert would have known and played, or a early twentieth-century Bechstein (such as the one I own), does not sound like a modern piano, and we should carry this appreciation into our playing and the sounds we strive to make. (It is reported by those who heard Chopin perform that he never played louder than mezzo-forte, even if he had written forte in the score.). Not all fortes are equal (nor all pianissimos for that matter!), and a forte or fortissimo in Schubert should not be played with the same volume as the equivalent dynamics in Rachmaninov or Stravinsky, for example. Schubert’s dynamics tend to be introspective and intimate, and his fortes generally lack the declamatory nature of Beethoven’s or Rachmaninov’s.

An appreciation of “psychological dynamics” is also important: dynamics should be nuanced to suit the genre, period, mood, key and character of the music. The word “dynamics” does not simply mean “loud or quiet”, and a whole host of adjectives and metaphors can be applied to suggest a particular sound and mood – vibrant, angry, energetic, lethargic, distant, lonely…. I have noticed a tendency amongst certain performers, who shall remain nameless, to offer very literal interpretations of dynamics. Add to this a very large grand piano in a medium-sized venue such as Wigmore Hall and one can feel as if one is being constantly hit over the head with sound, even in the back row of the hall where I usually sit. For someone who suffers from intermittent tinnitus as I do, this can be quite uncomfortable, verging on painful. It also feels “unmusical” to me.

And here is another issue concerning the sound of the modern piano – performers need to make adjustments to their sound according to the size of the venue. At a piano meetup event I attended last winter at a very small salon-style venue, a number of players pushed the fortes and fortissimos in their pieces as if they were playing to a full house at Carnegie Hall, quite inappropriate for the size of the venue. Earlier this year I gave a concert in a colleague’s home on a 1960s Steinway D. Fearful that my fortes might be too great for the size of the room, I considered playing with the piano’s lid on half-stick, but the instrument was so beautifully set up that it was not necessary. (I should add that this was a piano with a rather special heritage: it used to belong to the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli and has been played by such piano greats as Richter, Gilels, Barenboim and Ashkenazy.)

A skilled pianist playing a properly set up modern piano can adjust his or her sound according to venue, acoustic, genre of music. Thus, a pianist such as Richard Goode, whom I heard in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas recently, can bring a richness to the fortes and fortissimos without a loss of beauty of tone. His sound was warm and orchestral, rather than simply loud. Equally, in the piano and pianissimo passages he created an incredible sense of intimacy which seemed to shrink the Royal Festival Hall to the size of Schubert’s salon. Such skillful, controlled and sensitively nuanced playing is of course the result of many years of experience, an understanding of each composer’s distinct soundworld, and the ability to judge the volume of sound one is going to make before the finger reaches the key.

Paul Badura Skoda plays Schubert (on an 1826 Graf fortepiano, a 1923 Bösendorfer and a modern Steinway)

Chopin’s ‘own’ grand piano at the Cobbe Collection