Classic Piano Displays Its Enduring Charms In Showcase Performance

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German pianist Clemens Teufel, shown during a recording session, has served as both performer and videographer for concerts by the Frederick Collection. (clemensteufel.com)

ASHBURNHAM, Mass. — The Frederick Collection is a private collection of period grand pianos from the 1790s to 1928, restored to original playing condition and housed in the town’s 1890 Stevens Memorial Library building. Concerts presented by the collection take place in the 1834 former Congregational Community Church (the first church built after the separation of church and state went into effect in Massachusetts in 1833), now the New Dawn Arts Center. The parish continues to use the building for Sunday services.

Patricia Frederick, co-founder of the collection with her husband Edmund Michael Frederick, told me that the collection is growing by one more instrument, an Ibach donated by the family in whose possession it has always been.

The concert on Aug. 6 was a fundraiser for the center and a newly founded 501(c)(3) organization, Boston Concert Artist Society, Inc., the enterprise of one of the two pianists, Daesik Cha, being launched here. The other pianist, Clemens Teufel, has learned recording and videography skills for archiving, so he was wearing two hats.

The Collection’s 1877 Bösendorfer.

The recital was also the performance debut of an instrument in the collection that had never before been featured, an 1877 Bösendorfer. Its case is of an unknown local hardwood, painted with a dark zebra-striped pattern, has a narrow, flat iron plate around the inside of the curved side of the case to which the straight-strung wires are attached, and two straight iron braces over the wires from its tail to behind the keyboard to keep the soundboard from bending. Its stencil-like cutout music stand is very attractive. It has the standard Viennese action and a diversified range of voices across the registers: a warm bass, a non-shrill treble. All the voices are clear and crisp.

The program cover’s unsigned sketch of it is by Patricia; she inherited the talent from her mother, Martha Burnham Humphrey, who was the official artist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 10 years from the late 1930s into the 1940s. In 1949, she published a book, An Eye for Music, dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, of her sketches made during rehearsals, with her own commentaries. Copies are for sale at the collection.

All the recitals in the collection’s spring and fall five- or six-recital series feature music that could have been performed on the instruments when they were new. The 37th fall series begins Sept. 4 at 3 p.m. On Sept. 11, Teufel will be playing on an Érard, of which make the collection holds six instruments of different models and years, one of the larger groups in the world. The largest, I believe, is the Maison Érard in the Netherlands of restorer Frits Janmaat.

The make is special because of its longevity, from 1787. A major factor in the company’s long tenure were the numerous improvements. These included the double-escapement that allows a rapid re-striking of the same note prior to the fall of the hammer to its starting point, still used in every piano. Érard is also known for its particularly warm tone. Belgian piano builder Chris Maene also has a goodly number in Ruiselede; he makes replicas of Beethoven’s 1803 Érard, given to him by the company.

I also bring up this make because the arms/cheeks of this Bösendorfer are very similar to the unique shape of all Érards that do not look like those of any other make. I have not seen another Bösendorfer with anything close to that shape. Bösendorfer was started in Vienna in 1828, with the likely very first one in this collection, made when Ignaz Bösendorfer took over the shop of Joseph Brodmann, where Bösendorfer had been an apprentice, when Brodmann retired. Bösendorfer is still in operation, now owned by Yamaha, but independently run. For a list of what are considered to be the 10 best pianos in the world today, go here.

The only composer on the program who could have played this instrument was Franz Liszt, who wrote the transcription (1865?) of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 for piano four hands, the first movement of which opened Cha and Teufel’s performance. Liszt owned many different makes; several are still in existence, and some have been used in recordings, but none are in this collection. The duo followed this by playing Franz Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, Op. posth. 103. The performances were simply gorgeous to hear — the sound is quite easy for the ears to acclimate to, so much warmer than a modern instrument.

Elzbieta Brandys-O’Neill

After Cha’s presentation of the BCAS, Teufel played Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. posth. 142, No. 2 in A-flat, D 935 (1828), and Robert Schumann’s Arabesque in C, Op. 18 (1839), both exquisitely played. All the works sounded lovely on this instrument; its tone and articulation were perfect for these two, even though they were composed (nearly) a half-century before it was made.

The closing work, Franck’s Sonata in A for Violin and Piano (1886), transcribed for flute and piano, played by Elzbieta Brandys-O’Neill and Cha, could have, in terms of the time frame, been played on this instrument, but I’m not aware of any Bösendorfers of that vintage being in France; it was a make mostly limited to Austria then, but the instrument suited it perfectly.

This was a really delightful afternoon. The hall is not air-conditioned, nor are there fans, so there was no unwanted noise, but with just two large windows opened on opposite sides, and thanks to a nice breeze, the air was comfortable for the listeners, although a bit less so for the hard-working musicians. Alas, due to the extreme heat warning (up to 100 degrees predicted; I didn’t check), the audience was very small: only six of us and the Fredericks and the three performers. It was well worth it, but not as much money was raised as had been hoped.

A second BCAS performance occurred Aug. 14 at the La Grua Center in Stonington, Conn., named for a well-known native photographer, Maurice La Grua (1914-2005), who lived there. The center is another repurposed building, a granite foundry close to the water of Long Island Sound. It houses two historical pianos: an 1886 Chickering concert grand and a 1923 Mason & Hamlin studio grand, both restored to original condition. Stonington was the home of the Zuckermann harpsichord kit factory in the mid-20th century. I occasionally make the trip down there, too.