Viviana Sofronitsky, Wigmore Hall, London
An instrument fit for Liszt, in his time and in ours
Sunday 31 July 2011
It wasn't clear which of the two debutants would upstage the other on Tuesday at the Wigmore Hall, where every inch of the stage was crammed with winged fortepianos.
Fighting her way through them to take her opening bow was the glamorous Viviana Sofronitsky, clad for the first half like an exotic moth, and for the second like a dazzling opium poppy. But one of the fortepianos was going to take a bow of its own: this was the first unveiling of a replica of Liszt's own piano, made by a piano-builder of genius, to mark 200 years since the composer's birth.
Paul McNulty had been unable to take the original apart – it was too fragile – so he'd minutely studied its dimensions and materials. As for the sound, he'd just had to hope for the best, but as Sofronitsky is one of the world's leading fortepianists, it would get the best possible airing. But before we were allowed to hear this gleaming monster, we were taken on a fortepiano tour, with replicas of the instruments on which C P E Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin played and composed.
Being the first keyboard instrument with struck, rather than plucked, strings, the fortepiano was the precursor of the modern piano, though its sound was much thinner. And in early 19th-century Vienna, composers upgraded their fortepianos as assiduously as computer geeks upgrade their digitalia: technological keyboard developments were both inspired by composers, and in turn inspired new styles of composition. Sofronitsky's aim in this recital was not only to showcase her own virtuosity in a series of celebrated works, but to show how they related to the instruments they were designed for.
Mozart came across with lovely clarity on an 1805 Walter, but the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata – which is all about atmosphere – would have sounded better on a Steinway (Beethoven's musical imagination was always prophetic). As played on an 1819 Graf, a Schubert Impromptu was a revelation, but while the chords of Chopin's C minor Nocturne were enhanced by an 1831 Pleyel, the melody cried out for the resonance of a modern grand. To hear Liszt's darkly mysterious Funerailles on an 1846 Boisselot was a different sort of revelation, but I guess he would have been overjoyed to play it on a Steinway.
But the best came last. Instead of a traditional encore, Sofronitsky played the same two short pieces on each instrument in turn, highlighting the musical gains and losses, and then invited musicians in the audience – the place was stiff with them – to step up and have a go themselves. Brilliant.
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