There's been a new member of John O'Brien's Music House instrument collection, mostly lurking in the dining room, soaking up the atmosphere. Now the new instrument, a fortepiano based on a 1782 Anton Walter instrument, has made its debut, and what a piano and what a debut! Though a new instrument to the Music House, it was actually built in 1976; it's almost a fortypiano! O'Brien's piano was made by Michigan instrument builder John Donelson Lyon. O'Brien mentioned in conversation that the instrument needs some regulation. I believe that regulation will serve more to make it easier to play than to hear; it's lovely to listen to as it is.
Anton Walter was, according to Grove's Dictionary, "the most famous Viennese piano maker of his time." Walter's career spanned 45 years, from 1780 to 1825; Mozart came to Vienna permanently in 1781. Mozart bought a Walter piano about 1785.
At this concert, the Walter/Lyon piano could be compared and contrasted to a very different fortepiano of the same period, a copy by David Dutton of a 1784 Andreas Stein instrument. The instruments were nestled tail to tail against the long wall of the Music House music room. The Stein/Dutton, on the left, was played by Beverly Biggs; the Walter, to the right, with the lid removed, was played by O'Brien. This arrangement allowed the performers to see each other directly.
The evening began with Haydn's Trio in B-flat for piano, violin, and cello, Hob. XV:8, performed by Biggs, John Pruett, violin, and Stephanie Vial, cello. The strings sounded big against the fortepiano. Pruett and Vial played with gracious aplomb; Biggs has a very quiet body language and tremendous dexterity, but there is a breathless hesitancy about her playing that is very disconcerting.
After Haydn of course came Mozart, his Sonata in E minor for piano and violin, K.304. The balance was better without the cello; the Stein/Dutton can't stand up to two instruments. In the allegro, Pruett and Vial had trouble finding a common tempo with Biggs. The tempo di menuetto was marked by numerous tiny little hesitations on Bigg's part, along with some awkwardness at the page turn.
Beethoven's Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op. 5, No. 2, provided a basis for what everyone was waiting for, a chance to hear the new Walter/Lyon fortepiano, and nobody could possibly have been disappointed. The singing sound of the Walter/Lyon piano is very different from the clattering of the Stein/Dutton piano. (The Stein/Dutton does not compare favorably with other Stein copies that I have heard.) O'Brien and Vial are a good team, playing effortlessly together, with excellent balance and apparently complete communion of spirit. From my seat, the piano dampers, both individual and as a group controlled by a knee lever, were completely visible. It was very instructive to watch them and see that O'Brien's beautiful legato was almost entirely the result of his careful fingering and not the use of the knee lever that lifts all the dampers.
After intermission Jan Ladislav Dussek's Sonata in F for two pianos, Op. 26, was an excellent vehicle to compare and contrast the two pianos. The Walter/Lyon sang; the Stein/Dutton rattled. The singing quality of the Walter/Lyon was especially apparent in the parts of the larghetto played by O'Brien. O'Brien's piano style is composed and gracious; his mien is relaxed; his accuracy is unerring.
The finale of the evening was the allegro con spirito from Mozart's Sonata in D for two pianos, K 448, with violin and cello obbligato by O'Brien, 2012. In any team of mules there is always one that steps out ahead of the other. Without intending any odious comparison, O'Brien's spot-on playing stepped out a little ahead of Biggs. O'Brien presents as totally relaxed; his music, dead accurate, sounds totally unrehearsed. His orchestrating and composing skills, as demonstrated in this movement, promise many further interesting evenings.