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Pianos Compared: Originals, Contemporaries, and Moderns

May 18, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:


To the reader: The URLs for the pianist on the two different 2-CD sets are NOT the same; they are label-specific. There are several links to sites dealing with the piano makers; ALL are different and important to their (his)story. Hopefully no sites will disappear from the web. The bibliographical listings are, of necessity, especially complex.

I. Ravel Compared; Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Pavane pour une Infante défunte (1899), Sonatine (1903-05), "Oiseaux tristes," and "Alborada del gracioso," from Miroirs (1903-05), Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), "Ondine" from Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17); Elaine Greenfield, pianos:

CD 1, Érard (Paris), 1893, serial # 70277 [delivered to Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941 [the year of my birth]) in Morges, Switzerland, on 24 December 1928, per the Érard records, courtesy of Patricia Frederick (the site includes the records of both the Érard & Pleyel, (founded by composer and publisher Ignaz Pleyel) instruments; the latter was the last to make pianos in France when the Nazis invaded in 1940, Érard having merged with it during the Great Depression. A revival of French piano-making under the Pleyel name began c.1980 in the south of France, and in 2008, closed its factory there and moved back north to St. Denis [due N. of Paris], where I believe it is still in operation with 15 workers, taking its production more or less back to how it began in 1807 (a carefully hand-crafted instrument), now under the ownership of Yamaha (like Bösendorfer, in Vienna), but still independent), now in the Frederick Collection, Ahsburnham, MA, TT 65:08;

CD 2, Ivers & Pond (Boston), Parlor Concert Grand, 1917, serial # 61028 (courtesy of Sandy Roberts), in the OASIS Upstate Medical Center, E. Syracuse (NY), donation of Dr. Harold Jones; Navona NV 6401, TT 63:13, © 2022, $15.00 from the Frederick Collection.

Stored inside the central fold of the cleverly designed and realized tri-fold cardboard sleeve is a tri-fold sheet (covers of both are identical) with the pianist's notes about the pianos, followed by a c.1912 black and white photo of Ravel at the keyboard of his 1908 Érard (serial number 96117, probably acquired in 1910, 215 cm [about 7 feet] long, so a salon or studio grand, still in his home [now a museum] in Montfort-l'Amaury, suburb SW of Paris, adjacent to the Forêt de Rambouillet, in which he often took long walks), on the top left of its center fold, accompanying the excellent capsule bio by Rollo H. Myers on its and the third fold's insides and the latter's outside back; the info about the production is on the back of its center section.

The CDs are stored in the sleeve's outer sections, # 1 on the left and # 2 on the right. The ‘front' cover is the outside of the left fold; the track list with side-by-side timings for both CDs is on the outside of its center fold, with close-up color photos of the nameplates on its third outside. Their insides contain the pianist's bio and her notes about the project. This is as perfect and professional, and as environmentally-friendly (100% plastic-free) a product, as can be perceived and achieved! Bravo!

II. Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Préludes, Book I (1910), Book II (1913), Elaine Greenfield, piano (Blüthner [Leipzig], 1907, serial # 74760, courtesy of Patricia Frederick, in the Fredericks' Collection, Ahsburnham, MA); Centaur; its store no longer exists, & the links given do not work correctly), CRC 2693/94, © 2004, CD 1, TT 43:26, CD 2, TT 44:19, $20.00 from the Frederick Collection.

Debussy's Blüthner, 1904, a small salon/studio grand model (6', 3"), serial number 65614, with the same features as the Fredericks' 1907 concert grand, including the company's patented unique Aliquot system of additional strings mounted directly above those struck by the hammers in the treble register, and sounding sympathetically with them, caused by the vibrations of the air [no other company ever made anything like it, and Blüthner, founded in Leipzig in 1853 (the same year as Steinway in Hamburg & NYC, and Bechstein in Berlin), and still in existence, but not in the same buildings, because the original ones were destroyed by bombing in WWII, discontinued the feature c. a century ago], was purchased in 1905 in Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK, during a visit there in the summer, and shipped to his home at 80 avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now avenue Foch), Paris, 16th arrondissement, so he wrote the bulk of his later piano music for and on it.

It remained in his home until his death, and is still extant in the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde in the Limousin (Limoges area), to which it was moved during WWII, to prevent it from being seized by the Nazis, by Raoul Bardac (1881-1950), son of his wife (m. 1908) Emma (1862-1934), an accomplished singer, and her first husband, the banker Sigismond Bardac (no entry in Wikipedia), and a student of Debussy (that's how he met Emma), who inherited it upon Debussy's death, their only child, Claude-Emma Bardac (1905-1919), known as "Chouchou," the inspiration for his Children's Corner suite, having died in a diphtheria epidemic (not the "Spanish Flu" pandemic of the same time), soon after him. He had first discovered the make on the Isle of Jersey, when he took a summer vacation there with Emma in 1904, where the hotel in which they stayed had one, in its lobby or a salon/recital hall room, and he fell in love with its sound.

Listings (but not the composers or the recordings' ©'s) are in chronological & performance orders.

All of this music is so well known that it could be considered "chestnuts," were it not so creative and original in nature, so different from, and so superior to so many of the other musical works in that classification, at the time and still today. Most of the works are as unique as Blüthner's Aliquot system, resonate with us and our ears as impressively as it did/does, and are immediately recognized and loved, even if their exact names, because they are in French, don't spring instantly into our memories and minds, and we never tire of hearing them. But still, hearing them in these recordings will open your ears and eyes to them in a way likely different from any other recordings or performances you have previously heard or own. If you are like me, you will never again be truly satisfied to hear them on a modern piano.

These instruments are exactly like or have the same features as those that the two composers owned, and at/on whose keyboards they composed these works, so you can be assured that the sounds you are hearing are those that they heard, and had in their minds as they were writing. The Ivers & Pond, which also existed at that time, and was the company's top-of-the line, and the pinnacle of the entire market, gives an excellent idea of what was possible then in the U.S.: a greater diversity among the voice registers and a warmer tone than any present product can provide. You owe it to yourself to acquire these recordings to have such excellent performances and increase your understanding. It is rare that you can find this kind of assurance/certainty and experience.

I have numerous recordings on period pianos and replicas of them in my collection, and seek them out, because they have sounds that are far more musical, pleasing, and warmer than standard, run-of-the-mill instruments can produce. I suppose you could say I'm addicted, but it's a good addiction, and you might (want to) get addicted, too, once you hear these recordings. These are made by perfectionist musicians and craftsmen, respectively, not industrialized factories putting out quantity rather than quality, but striving to make quality rather than quantity, although the recordings themselves are machine manufactured products, albeit it by local independent (in NH & LA, respectively), not international corporate labels. Think of the results as comparing a gourmet meal with fast food, a French restaurant with a McDonald's.