Fantasies For Keyboard, Wafting Across Time From A Graf Fortepiano

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Fortepianist Yi-heng Yang’s new Deux-Elles release is ‘Free Spirits: Early Romantic Music on the Graf Piano.’ (Photo by Christopher Greenleaf)

Free Spirits: Early Romantic Music on the Graf Piano. Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano. Deux-Elles (DXL 1187); 74 min.

DIGITAL REVIEW — If you needed a new fortepiano in the 1820s through the early 1840s, Vienna-based Conrad Graf was simply the man to see. Chopin and Liszt thought so, as did Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. All of them owned Graf pianos. In 1824 the master craftsman was appointed official keyboard maker to the Austrian court. And now we all have a chance to hear one of his magnificent creations, under the gifted fingers of pianist Yi-heng Yang, who plays an 1825 Graf instrument on her Deux-Elles release Free Spirits: Early Romantic Music on the Graf Piano.

Yang, who has recently done some collaborative Romantic-era projects — Brahms Cello Sonatas with Kate Bennett Wadsworth, Mendelssohn Violin Sonatas with Abby Karr — at last gets to put the fortepiano in the limelight. A faculty member at the Juilliard School, she also proves herself an effective teacher, explaining both the instrument and her choice of repertoire in some of the most thoughtful liner notes I’ve seen by a musician.

In purely technical terms, she describes the six-and-a-half-octave piano as “consisting of a wooden frame, leather hammers, strings of less tension [than a modern metal-framed piano], and four pedals which offer various intriguing sound effects.” Those pedals, which give the hammered strings reedy or percussive sounds, replace the knee pedals of earlier fortepianos. The instrument can also play louder than its predecessors and sustain notes longer.

And while that information is helpful and interesting, Yang knows it is not the heart of the matter. She quickly switches to the more vital topic, namely what this instrument has to do with the music under consideration. On this topic Yang is just as succinct, not to mention self-aware: By accustoming herself to the Graf, she explains, “I felt that I had both the permission and the tools to bring out the psychological, timejumping, fragmentary narratives of these pieces of fantasy and exploration.”

The pieces in question are Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Four Lieder for Piano, Op. 8; Schumann’s Novelletten, Op. 21; and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894. The last of these is actually nicknamed the Fantasie, but all three have fantasia-like elements. As Yang puts it, these works “are all about liminality: stepping outside boundaries of the seen or spoken, beyond the limits of musical formality.”

While her brother Felix’s Songs Without Words are much more famous, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s four miniatures, which she called Lieder, drip with Romantic fantasy. The delicacy of the Graf fortepiano’s sound, coupled with Yang’s expressive touch, create a rich atmosphere of longing and exploration. Especially effective are Yang’s interpretations of the long cadential passages that close each of the first two Lieder, like a wind that dies down, allowing eddying leaves to settle gently into the grass.

A Graf fortepiano from around 1838.

The final miniature in the set, “Wanderlied” — it’s the only one with a programmatic title — has the tempo marking Presto. But, although her fingers fly like the wind, Yang never allows the music to seem rushed or even fast. She differentiates the pulsing waves of sixteenth notes in the left hand and middle voice so completely from the slow melody at the top that they are as distinct as the sea and a boat that sails on it. Yang’s imaginative playing inspires the mind’s eye.

Schuman’s Novelletten has eight movements, of which Yang has included three. In the first miniature, with the directions “Markirt und kräftig” (Accented and strong), Schumann demands a range from militaristic to pensive. The 11-minute No. 8, “Sehr lebhaft” (Very lively), is more obviously in the fantasia style, as the term has been used since the 16th century: a piece meant to sound like it’s invented as it goes along, moving from idea to idea according to the musician’s fancy. The music swirls, then it prances and plays, then it roars with energy, then it sighs.

Yang saves the most technically challenging Schumann miniature for last. No. 2, “Äusserst rasch und mit Bravour” (Extremely fast and with bravura), has sections requiring spectacular virtuosity interspersed with dreamy, floating passages. Our modern ears tend to associate the majestic resonance of a concert grand’s metal frame with powerful emotion. Yang challenges that preconception: Every contrasting statement is clear and purposeful as she draws it from this instrument she has mastered so thoroughly. At times the tone is light, almost brittle, but when needed Yang deepens the sound so it can bear the music’s weight.

There is just as much nuance in her reading of Schubert’s G major Fantasie Sonata. After its tender, simple opening, the first movement, Molto moderato e cantabile, grows in complexity. Yang’s control of the Graf is such that even a string of repeated chords has meaningful expressive delineation. The second-movement Andante trips along elegantly, while the Menuetto: Allegro moderato alternates stentorian, wall-shaking chords with lacy melodic curlicues. Yang brings a buoyant, rustic charm to the final Allegretto movement, its folk-like theme opening into a range of related yet widely varying ideas. Yang makes each of these seem so spontaneous that it’s easy to picture Schubert’s satisfaction in composing them.

One of the heartbreaking facts of music history is that we don’t know exactly what any particular music sounded like before the invention of recorded sound. No amount of research, short of a time machine, can ever fix that problem. Still, Yang’s performance of these early Romantic works on one of the best instruments from that era takes us as close to the original experience as we can ever hope to come.