The weekend was a highlight for this particular Liszt fan - the annual festival/conference of the American Liszt Society. The main reason was the presence of the 1886 Bechstein concert grand in the middle of the grand foyer of the Spencer Museum of Art on the University of Kansas campus, a beautiful instrument preserved in sight and in sound. Being a museum piece, the parts were almost all original - hammers, keys, soundboard, case. Only the strings have been replaced. Normally, all of this "original" cachet would be a bad thing for a piano over 100 years old. The piano is, after all, a mechanical object, highly complex and sensitive, but made with an organic, malleable material - wood. In this case, however, "original" was not a label for the performing pianist to run away from; on the contrary, the fact that the wood used to make the soundboard and the pinblock was most likely naturally well-aged and very dense probably explained why, despite an entire day of heavy Liszt playing, the tuning didn't budge, and the richness of the instrument's sound rang powerfully in all the different ranges and through all the different dynamic levels.
But before knowing any of this, I encountered the piano through its sound as I entered the museum for the first time; someone (I would find out later, Anna Volovitch) was playing the Rhapsodie Espagnole, at 10:30 in the morning!! The first thought that came to mind was, "That can't be the 1886 Bechstein - it sounds way too loud." Even though double doors, the clarity of the notes struck me, and the rich resonances of the coda were both articulated and harmonious (with no small credit going to Anna, of course).
As I circled around to the back entrance, I realized that this WAS the instrument. I noticed my slight sense of relief, which underlined the extent of my previous concerns about playing on a "period" instrument. The small but attentive morning audience was arranged to both the left and right sides of the piano and the pianist, in a way that Liszt himself would have probably favored for this space, an ornate chamber of stone and plaster. An exhibit on "Trees and their Ramifications" was installed in the room - I wondered if the curator meant to include this amazing example of the ramifications of wood that was being played at that moment.
The high ceilings opened into the upper passageways of the museum, where groups occasionally passed by, in the midst of visiting an exhibit on Chinese art, leaning over the edge to observe the proceedings and put a face on the music that permeated the entire museum.
At the end of the concert, I greeted the many friends I had expected to see there - my teacher from Indiana University days, Dr. Karen Shaw, two of her doctoral students, Steven Spooner, the director of this year's festival/conference. Immediately, other familiar faces began popping up - Paul Barnes, from Lincoln, Nebraska, Justin Kolb, Susan Winerock... Other faces became familiar to me as the day continued. The ambiance was one of satisfied membership - deep lovers and connoisseurs of Liszt understand first and foremost the incredible humanity and generosity of the man, which I think makes it hard to feel even the slightest bit of that disdain that often accompanies membership in select clubs.
Following the morning concert was a lecture about the piano, given by a Liszt scholar and the curator of the Spencer museum. We heard about the creation of this specific instrument, number 10092, built in 1886, and immediately shipped to England, where it was installed in a private home that would host Liszt on his last visit to England. There is a question as to how much Liszt actually used the piano - there were a number of private events at the house, as well as lessons, but, according to the scholar Geraldine Keeling's talk, none of the extensive notes about that trip to England point specifically to Liszt playing this Bechstein 10092. (I looked for possible Liszt DNA matter later, but could not verify anything personally. The question therefore is still open, I guess.)
Personally, it didn't matter. What moved me was the knowledge that Liszt appreciated the Bechstein piano in general, being very familiar with it from the inception of the company. The fact that he knew and loved these instruments and that this was an exemplary specimen combined to create a special aura around this weekend.
Following Geraldine's talk, Susan Earle, curator of the Spencer Museum, told us about the history of the instrument as it pertained to the museum. As a permanent resident of the museum, it is one of the rare pieces that is not just seen but also used, which makes for a delicate balance in its maintenance. Eventually there will come a day when the original hammers and mechanism will no longer be adequate for playing, but that day might be a long time coming, to judge by the results of this weekend.
After lunch, the audience, now slightly larger, reassembled to listen to Edmund Battersby perform Schumann, Liszt and Chopin. I had heard only the virtuosic ending of the Rhapsodie Espagnole, and now I was in a different mindset, having sat through the lecture and immersed myself in the arcana of piano manufacturing. The first notes of Schumann's Waldszenen were simultaneously delicate and penetrating, revealing another aspect of this incredible instrument - it's amazing depth of tone and nuance. As I listened, John Perry came in through the back and listened, playing along on his leg (he was to perform the same two days later).
I had to reserve the hours before the concert for concentration and practice, despite the urgency of various personal responsibilities (tax time!). After running around looking for a way to get an internet connection, sending some vital emails, making some quick phone calls and quickly grabbing my concert paraphernalia at my host family's house, I returned to the hall, in time to catch the final notes of Adam Gyorgy's recital. The crowd had gotten even bigger since after lunch, and when the last person left the room, I finally settled into a chair before the ornate black lacquered case. The Bechstein logo took up a good part of the fallboard - "C. Bechstein/Hof-Lieferant Sr. Maj/des Kaisers u. Königs/Berlin." On the left side of the keyboard, a plaque told a quick history of its encounter with Liszt:
and was placed in his study at
Westwood House Sydenham
where it was used by the
great master during his
last visit to England
April 3-19, 1886.
My first notes on the instrument were the opening of Bach's Ab Major Prelude from book 2 of the WTC. The opening chordal fanfare in Ab is a great way to judge both the melodic and harmonic profile of a piano. In addition, I had realized earlier in the day, with a lump in my throat, that I had forgotten to practice this piece! In my mind, the program was slightly different; I had inadvertently substituted a Bach/Busoni Chorale for this P&F. But as soon as I saw the correct program printed in the festival booklet, I remembered why I had wanted to include the P&F and gave myself a kick for having forgotten. My experience at the lecture, concert and lunch from earlier was overlaid with an added element - my mental practicing of the P&F. I asked for Steven Spooner's help in getting a copy of the score - I would probably have to play with music, not having performed this piece in a couple of years.
The silver quality of the Bechstein sound shined for the Bach, both in the spinning single lines and the reverberating chords. The Fugue was inspiringly clear - the resonance of hall notwithstanding, each note retained its core, allowing even notes in the lower register to sound clean and independent. I thought ahead and already knew that some of the knottier polyphony of the Beethoven Quartet transcriptions I was going to play later in the program would work beautifully on this instrument.
Next I played the Beethoven Sonata Op 54 in F Major. This rare two-movement Sonata is a Hidden Gem, and the fact that it was written in the same year as the inception of the Fifth Symphony made it a natural to be on this program. The spare layering of voices in this work came across perfectly, and the singing legato was a pure joy. I found myself intuitively playing at a slower tempo, with more freedom to pull back, in order to truly enjoy the clarity of the voices.
Then I rehearsed the rest of the Bach pieces, all with a general feeling of holding back, I slowly realized. As I was rehearsing right before showtime, there would be very little time to do even touch up tuning. But then I wondered when during the day had there been time BEFORE my rehearsal for the tuner to have made any touch-ups? There had not been! And the piano was in great shape, after those many hours of intense piano-playing.
Even on a mechanical level, I was worried I could do some damage - I tell audiences the story of how Liszt, when he performed the 5th Symphony, would keep a piano backstage, in order to do a switch after the first movement; the strain on the piano would invariably produce broken strings and hammers - but the action was very reliable. Repetitions were easy, the action was light (too light!) and relatively even. I let myself dig in incrementally, never feeling any danger of changing the tuning or hurting the action.
After playing the Bach, I wanted to move on to the Beethoven Quartet transcriptions by Saint-Saëns and Alkan. Unfortunately, I had left my scores sitting on the bed in my host family's house! I called them to ask them to bring the scores with them, as I would have had to spend precious rehearsal time going back and forth.
Skipping the quartets, I ran through most of the Beethoven Symphony V, directly confronting the issue of the missing sostenuto pedal. For these difficult scores, I need any tool I can use to help differentiate voices, and the sostenuto pedal is a great one. (The pedal did not become standard on a grand piano until the 20th century.)
Although the piano's inherent sound favored the differentiation of voices, there were three or four key moments where the effect of the sostenuto could not be replicated in any other way. I gave myself a small pep talk - "What would Liszt do?" In fact, it would be more accurate to ask "What DID Liszt do?" I would have to rely on subtle damper pedaling and focus even more on voicing.
Beethoven Sonata in F Major Opus 54
Bach Prelude and Fugue in Ab Major, WTC Book II
Bach/Chiu Erbarme dich from St Matthew Passion
Bach/Busoni Chorale Preludes Nun freut euch, lieben Christen and Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Beethoven/Alkan Cavatine from Opus 130
Beethoven/St-Saëns Adagio from Opus 18 #6
Beethoven/St-Saëns Fugue from Opus 59 #3
Beethoven/Liszt Symphony V
The concert was delayed as volunteers scoured the museum for any movable chairs they could find. Some museum pieces in the 19th century drawing room where I was stationed did not get taken, but almost everything else found its way into the hall. As I entered the hall, I saw the circle of people had grown considerably, and now completely surrounded the piano. I wondered again if Liszt were in this situation, what would he have preferred? Having the piano at one end of the space, with the audience to his right, the open piano lid facing them directly, as Liszt was the first pianist in history to do? Or would he in fact have enjoyed being completely surrounded by his admirers? Probably in this acoustic space, so resonant and open, he would have decided based on ambiance rather than solely on acoustics, and he would have wanted to be in the middle of it all, just the way the festival organizers had decided to arrange things.
The program was put together around the amazing transcription of the 5th Symphony, the first half being a preparation for the Symphony. I wanted some original Beethoven music, to show that Beethoven's musical language flows naturally from the original to the transcribed. The Sonata in F Major, created at the same time as the Symphony, displays some remarkable similarities and contrasts with its larger and more famous sibling. Similar in its compactness (the Sonata has only 2 movements and lasts only 12 minutes long, the Symphony lasts only 30 minutes) and its organic austerity. Contrasting in their personality (intimate and curious vs aggressive and take-charge). The set of Beethoven Quartet movements transcribed by others underlines the attempt by others to follow in the footsteps of the great master transcriber in his faithfulness to the original score. The Bach set functions as a microcosm of the Beethoven works - an original Bach, a transcription of Bach by a follower of the great transcription traditions, and transcription of Bach by a great master (in this case, Busoni).
As I sat down and began to play, I let myself enjoy the sound, and enjoy the idea of Liszt at this piano. The Beethoven Sonata unfolded in a much freer fashion than usual, led by the piano's incredibly long, singing tone. The Bach set went very well; the transcription of the Beethoven Fugue got a little out of control - a run-through earlier in the day would have been a good idea; Note to self - do not forget music. The Bechstein's light and shallow action combined with a fast repetition made playing this piece much more difficult. Instead of a solid wall of physical resistance to push against in terms of tempo, the piano could go faster than me. I had to consciously stay at a specific tempo and manually and consciously play every repeated note, which made it physically much more strenuous and difficult.
The Symphony benefited immediately from this experience, with appropriate tempi and pacing of dynamics. Nonetheless, the lighter and faster piano did not make the playing easier - I was much more tired at the end of this performance than I have been after playing on modern pianos. I'm sure a few more performances would have brought me more insight into a slightly different physical approach to this kind of instrument.
A great dinner afterward at Teller restaurant (including a delectable ravioli with duck confit!!) ended 24 hours of wonderful discovery and camaraderie, a day that had started with an entire banana-papaya smoothie dripping down my back on a plane (my own stupidity, too embarrassing to put out on the web!) and ended with a feeling of having approached more closely than ever in my career an empathy for and appreciation of that amazing figure, Franz Liszt.
Thanks so much to Steven Spooner and everyone involved in the festival for putting on such a great event.