David or Goliath?
Back when Bruno Weil called the shots at the Carmel Bach Festival, he settled the harpsichord vs. piano debate in favor of the one that plucked rather than hammered the strings. (In so doing, he also bid adieu to pianist Janina Fialkowska, a long-time Festival favorite.) Yet somehow, the debate continues to arouse partisans of both, purists for the harpsichord and those who believe Bach would have preferred the piano if its technology were more developed during his lifetime.
I favor the latter view for a simple reason: Bach’s harpsichord music puts the focus on music as its own literature in its own unique language. (Bach’s contemporary French ‘clavecin’ composers went for spoofs, dance tropes, character portraits, musical pictures and the harpsichord itself–and they sound exactly right when played on it.)
Cutting to the chase, Bach’s harpsichord music sounds better on the fortepiano than either of the other instruments. The desirable loud-soft dynamic expression is there but without the opulent sonorities of the grand piano that, to me, sound incompatible with Bach’s other instrumental resources, rather like the proverbial bull in a china shop.
Meanwhile, the fortepiano works splendidly well for Beethoven. After all, it was his instrument. Using a modern concert grand in a Beethoven sonata or concerto can often sound grandiose, as if bigger were, by definition, better. To hear such works on a fortepiano is to recognize that it’s David (the instrument) against Goliath (the composer’s monumental imagination.) Who doesn’t cheer the underdog that wins the lopsided contest?! And when it works as it should it’s a win-win all around.
Yes, I admit, this exposition has been long in getting to the point, which is David Breitman’s fortepiano and his upcoming collaborations with violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch in sonatas by Beethoven. This Sunday afternoon, and the following Tuesday evening, these artists will survey most of the composer’s works for these two instruments, as they originally sounded, grand yet intimate.
Wallfisch—“Libby”—is well known in Carmel where these two recitals will be performed. She was Weil’s concertmaster for nearly twenty years, a brilliant player and a force of personality all her own. Breitman is better known, at least to local audiences, by way of his many recordings, among them a collaboration with another Bach Festival alum, baritone Sanford Sylvan, in Schubert’s Die schöne Műllerin. Breitman also participated in a 10-CD set of Beethoven piano sonatas played on fortepianos, and partnered with Jaap ter Linden for Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. Breitman is director of the Historical Performance Program at Oberlin Conservatory.
Click on the Carmel Music Society thumbnail, left, for details and ticket information.
The Western Stage in Salinas has announced its 40th (2014) season of six major productions, plus various other events. The Studio Theater will see openings of William Inge’s Picnic (May), Max Frisch’s The Arsonists (Sep) and Mary Chase’s Harvey (Oct). Musicals opening on the Main Stage are Woody Guthrie’s American Song (Jun), Bernstein/Sondheim’s West Side Story (Aug) and Pasek/Paul’s A Christmas Story (Nov). Details coming soon. http://westernstage.com/backstage/castingauditions/
Paper Wing Theatre in Monterey has announced auditions for an ambitious season that includes productions of A Tribute to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Three Men in Drag Selling Their Stuff, Jesus Hates Me, The Lyons, Reservoir Dogs, Nerve, Salome and 1984. Dates and details later. www.paperwing.com
The Santa Cruz Baroque Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary this spring with concerts at UC Santa Cruz’s Music Recital Hall, themed on “Lute to Uke” (Feb 8), Reunion with the SC Chorale—at Holy Cross Church—(Mar 1 & 2), Old and New Music for Early Instruments (Mar 15), A Scottish Festival (Apr 7) and Virtuoso Music for Baroque Flutes (May 10). For details, www.scbaroque.org/concerts.html
Scott MacClelland, editor