Chopin and His Europe Festival 2010 - Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires with Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century - Warsaw 30 August 2010

Am very pleased to hear that all my endless discussions concerning the importance of playing period pianos (at least as an educational experiment and not necessarily a career) was  justified in a live concert last night. Both Maria Joao Pires and Martha Argerich decided to do so and are such consummate musicians they adapted very quickly to the early piano unlike many others. I feared the worst – so happy that my expectations were not realised. If the publicity is to be believed this was the first time either pianist had played a period piano in a public concert. Amazing really. Nelson Goerner, the great Argentinian pianist and an Argerich protege, has made some superb recordings of Chopin on the Chopin Institute Pleyel (The Real Chopin Series) so Martha Argerich must have had some familiarity with older instruments I would imagine. I am sure that both pianists learned a great deal and had some fun too.

Rather oddly (but very much in the spirit of nineteenth century practice) Pires played the first movement of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto in B flat major Op. 19 with fine classical, elegant tone and control. Argerich played the tender Adagio and Allegro molto movements with surprising restraint and expressiveness. The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century were very committed in their playing with these two fine pianists under the direction of the now frail Frans Bruggen.

Naturally one could not escape interest in the period instruments even if one wanted to. The orchestra and piano were closely matched. The Erard used (1849) was constructed some time after the period of this Mozartian 'classical' concerto (Beethoven first performed the work in 1795). Although the Chopin Institute Erard is certainly old, it is even more exciting to hear Beethoven played on a properly restored Viennese Walter or Stein piano with their wonderful range of tone colours and light action. The earlier Erard Beethoven himself owned (1803) he bought because it posessed an una corda pedal of which he was particularly fond, although I feel the tone is inferior to those earlier Viennese intruments. He finally became disenchanted with it. Beethoven would never have heard the actual piano the English maker Broadwood famously gave him in 1818 as he was almost profoundly deaf by then. The Broadwood at his death was a riot of broken strings and refuse -  'a symbol of Beethoven's anguish'. The Broadwood  has a rather different sound to an Erard but he tragically would never have fully appreciated this difference.

An 1803 Erard similar to that owned by Beethoven with 4 pedals -  lute-stop (plucked sound), sustaining, sourdine (muffled sound) and una corda (hammers striking only one string)

You may consider me pedantic but on a good period instrument or quality copy one can additionally feel  that Beethoven is really pushing the limits of his instrument, trying to break through a physical barrier as an authentic revolutionary composer.  This is quite apart from a spiritual, philosophical and emotional range that is far beyond Chopin. This additional excitement adds another dimension to the impact of his music and the greatness of his musical and personal achievement through an emotionally tragic life. This element is lost rather in modern times. The works of his imagination are perhaps only fully realised on a modern Steinway or Boesdorfer with say Daniel Barenboim at the keyboard, amply illustrated by his recent magnificent and monumental  Beethoven sonata series in Berlin. It is the very limitations of these earlier instruments that are their finest attribute, but they have to be excellent restorations or brilliant copies.

Everything fully realised in life is ultimately a disappointment is it not? 

Anyway, it seems amazing that Argerich finds that playing very quietly is not only possible on earlier instruments, hopefully now on any instrument, but highly desirable. Earlier pianos with their wooden frames were not considered as percussion instruments until Liszt came along and revolutionised piano technique and extended its dynamic range into the realm of the fearful  – his compositions demanded that piano design continue to evolve in a more robust direction. He often had spare instruments waiting in the wings. The first iron frame was patented in 1825. Earlier wooden-framed pianos permit pianissimos and tonal colour variation that are simply unachievable on a modern concert Steinway. The whole dynamic range is lowered to a more comfortable 'human' level where true spirituality and some degree of musical intimacy can emerge. Rafal Blechacz (winner of the 2005 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw) is one of the few world pianists to unfailingly achieve this on a modern instrument particularly in Chopin. Schubert's pastel colouring in particular benefits tremedously from performance on an appropriate period instrument.

Hopefully this concert may stem some of the snide remarks of our great pounding virtuosi, the triceps terrors, concerning what they consider to be the lamentable, nutty and misguided ‘authenticity school’. Of course Erards have a double escapement mechanism (he invented it) so the touch would not have been all that foreign for Argerich and Pires to master quickly. A Pleyel grand with single escapement is a quite different matter and far more difficult to control – more difficult than the Pleyel pianino too. I am sure this is the reason the Chopin Institute Erard is chosen predominantly by pianists here in concert and for recordings. But quiet playing. How wonderful. Pires is a very sensitive Chopin player – I have many of her recordings of Chopin and her approach to the Nocturnes is sublime. Surprisingly she is rather fierce with students in master classes.

An elderly audience – more and more common throughout the world. Many young people have become desensitised by our age and I am afraid so much of the classical repertoire is ‘that same old stuff’ in their technological-miracle minds. Unfortunately they are to a degree correct as programming has become unadventurous and repetitive for fear of low the box-office takings - yet the pianistic creme de la creme continue to demand outrageous fees more in line with the sporting world and popular entertainment stars.


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