Chamber Music Review



Chopin's Original Keyboard Sounds Explored

October 10, 2008 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Lovers of the music of Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) and connoisseurs of 19th-century keyboard instruments found a double treat in the joint concert of cellist Brent Wissick and pianist Andrew Willis in the intimate space of Person Hall on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. The program, entitled Chopin: From Poland to Paris — by Way of Vienna, was the second in a series of concerts exploring the composer's music for cello and piano. Both artists have long been active in the Early Music movement. Wissick is a faculty member of the Chapel Hill campus while Willis is on the faculty of UNC Greensboro. They were joined by fellow UNC Chapel Hill faculty member, violinist Richard Luby, for the program's final work.

The unique pre-modern concert grand sound of early 19th-century pianos was a secondary focus of the program. Chopin is known to have made his Vienna debut using a Graf piano, an instrument well-known to Beethoven. The university has a fine 1994 copy of an 1840 6-octave Graf model which was sampled during this concert. The star of the evening was a fine Pleyel grand piano, #15270, made in Paris in 1848, the year before the composer's death. Willis' extensive program note about the piano quotes Chopin's oft-reported remark, "When I am somewhat indisposed, I play an Erard piano and I easily find a sound ready to hand. But when I am in form and feel strong enough to find my own sound, I must have a Pleyel." He also quotes a contemporary Parisian piano technician's description of the Pleyel piano's sound as "... a special satisfying quality, the upper register bright and silvery, the middle penetrating and intense, the bass clear and vigorous." Wissick informed me they tuned their instruments to A=440 which is close to the pitch used in much of 19th-century Central Europe.

The Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante, Op. 3, for cello and piano (1829), opened the concert. It was composed for Chopin's patron, the Prince Antonin Radizwill, who was an amateur cellist of limited skill. Initially, Chopin played the keyboard part, which he intended for the Prince's daughter, who was a good pianist. There were no balance problems as Wissick tossed off the rather plain cello part while Willis played the far more elaborate keyboard part on the Graf piano. The piano's somewhat limited dynamic range meant that its loudest forte did not cover the cello's sound. The Graf was very responsive to the composer's quick changes of articulation or rapid runs. The Introduction portion of the score was added later to the Polonaise. It is more often heard in an edition by the cellist Emanuel Feurmann, but Wissick and Willis presented it in its original Viennese/Polish version. Wissick used an anonymous, late 19th-century German cello with gut strings for the entire concert. He informed me he used a lighter 18th-century-type bow to match the lighter sound of the Graf.

In Vienna and Paris, respectively, Chopin met two cellists, Joseph Merk (1795-1852) and Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), who influenced him and sometimes jointly composed works with him. Merk persuaded Chopin to add the Introduction to Op. 3, and its cantabile lines reflect the cellist's style. Franchomme helped support Chopin in numerous ways including financially. Wissick played challenging solo etudes by both composers with panache. The Etude in A minor, Op. 35, by Franchomme, concentrated on remarkable fingerings that tested agility and extreme left hand extensions. Merk's Etudes in C, Op. 11 abound in attractive, long-lined melodies and seamless bowings.

The Pleyel piano was the center of focus in two selections, the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17/4 (1832-33), and Bolero, Op. 19 (1833). "Originally a Polish dance of heroic cast, the mazurka has a basic rhythm in triple meter with the principal accent on the second or third beat rather than on the first," according to Five Centuries of Keyboard Music by John Gillespie, one of my favorite crutches. The bolero is a Spanish dance featuring brilliant and intricate steps and rhythms closely related to those of the polonaise. Willis played these two works with élan and great style and brought out the extraordinary bright kaleidoscope of colors from the Pleyel. He made full use of its wider dynamic range. The clarity of its sound was exceptional.

The Grand Duo Concertant on themes from Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (1833), for cello and piano, was a joint composition of Chopin and Franchomme. Wissick and Willis brought out all the charm and melodic twists and turns in this series of variations on "hit" arias.

Willis and Wissick were joined by Richard Luby, using a Bergonzi violin with gut strings, for an eloquent performance of the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (1828-29, 1833). The more powerful Pleyel piano can cover the sound of strings, and Luby's violin was very fleetingly drowned in the opening movement. Balance was quickly corrected and sustained through the succeeding three movements. The trio is an early work, so the greater part of the musical interest, arpeggios, trills, etc., are in the piano part. The tonal and timbral blends and contrasts between the strings and the Pleyel were fascinating.