CHOPIN Late Piano Works
Today the musical vistas in Haydn, Clementi and Mozart enabled by using Walter, Stein and Broadwood pianos seem almost a given. Similar windows opened on to the sound worlds of Beethoven and Schubert through the use of the instruments of Streicher and Graf are also long familiar. But a great deal remains to be learnt about those pianos that continued their rapid technological development in the wake of Sébastian Érard’s double-escapement patent of 1821, and that had such a profound influence on the music of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt.
All the more welcome then are the efforts by artists like Edoardo Torbianelli, a Trieste native who teaches at the Schola Cantorum in Basel and Berne’s Hochschule der Künste, and who is associated with the Royaumont Foundation. Here he plays late Chopin works on a grand piano by Ignace Pleyel of 1842.
Immediately apparent is the instrument’s reduced dynamic spectrum. An explosive fortissimo of the magnitude we’ve become accustomed to on the modern Steinway would simply render this piano mute. Thus the player is dependent on myriad other strategies for dynamic contrast. The phrase shape assumes much greater importance. Naturally the sophisticated properties of the Pleyel offer many compensations, including an almost incalculably richer overtone series due to the less tautly strung strings on an instrument built before the introduction of the iron frame, universal today.
The more rapid decay of sound also allows for greater clarity of inner voices, foregrounding Chopin as the consummate contrapuntist we know him to be from a mere glance at the scores. A very different sort of cantabile playing is also possible, particularly evident here in Torbianelli’s exquisite reading of the two Op 62 Nocturnes. Pacing and dramatic emphasis in the B minor Sonata receive a bracingly fresh look. The delicate haze enveloping the opening measures of the Polonaise-fantaisie, dampers up, is the best testimony I know to the fact that the modern piano may be a more durable, louder instrument better able to hold its tune, but it is in no way qualitatively superior to the instruments that inspired the masterpieces of Chopin and Liszt.
Of course these observations would not be applicable to performances by anyone less than a master of the instrument, not to mention by an interesting, cultivated musician. Fortunately, Torbianelli is all these things and more. Highly recommended.