STONINGTON, Conn. — Bartolomeo Cristofori’s first cembalo col pian’ e forte, built in 1700, is no longer extant, but three of his Baroque instruments from the 1720s are: one in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one in Rome’s Museo Nationali degli Strumenti Musicali, and one in Leipzig’s Grassi Museum.
The Leipzig cembalo recently served as model for a new instrument built in 2020 by historic keyboard specialist Kerstin Schwarz. Her creation received its impressive North American debut at La Grua Arts and Cultural Center in Stonington, Conn., on March 18.
The soloist, Artem Belogurov, was born in Riga, Latvia, and grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, before moving to Boston at age 18 to study modern piano at the New England Conservatory of Music.
In 2014, Belogurov moved to Amsterdam, where he studied fortepiano and clavichord at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam with Richard Egarr (now music director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) and with harpsichord and clavichord player Menno van Delft. Belogurov has recorded for the BIS, Piano Classics, Berlin Classics, and TRPTK labels, and he remains committed to experimenting and reviving “forgotten expressive devices.”
At La Grua Center, Belogurov delivered a performance that demonstrated the surprising capacities of the early Baroque keyboard design. The new instrument’s tone is smooth, soft, warm, and pleasing, an experience not disrupted by the occasionally perceived sounds of its quiet mechanism.
All of the music on Belogurov’s recital was from the early Baroque. He opened with an anonymous two-movement keyboard suite, probably by Cristofori’s patron Ferdinando III de’ Medici. Then came Lodovico Giustini’s Sonata da cimbalo de piano e forte in E minor, Op. 1, No. 4, and Giovanni Benedetto Platti’s three-movement 1746 (Würzburg) Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 4, No. 5. The remaining works were mostly familiar ones: J.S. Bach’s Preludium, Fuga, and Allegro in E-flat, BWV 998; Handel’s five-movement Suite in E minor, from his Eight Great Suites of 1720; and music from Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 517, and Antonio Soler’s (1729-1783) Keyboard sonata in C, R. 38.
The works showed off the variety of the musical forms, and Belogurov’s amazingly nuanced dynamics, expression, and tempos, masterfully controlled entirely by his fingers, demonstrated the surprising capacities of this early, primitive (in comparison with a modern piano) Baroque instrument. He sensed and understood the instrument so well that he could make it “sing,” as one should. The audience got a glimpse of his ultra-perfection when he retuned a string that went slightly off.
The full-house audience sprang immediately to its feet with enthusiastic applause at the recital’s conclusion and stayed to look at the instrument and the key-mechanism model, trying it out, and to talk with the pianist and the builder. With its 4.5-octaves compass, from GG to d3, the Cristofori’s 54 keys are tuned at 415Hz. This was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The instrument’s maker, Kerstin Schwarz, was attracted to musical-instrument building from an early age. At 18, she began studies at the Martin Luther Universität in Halle, and she soon discovered the collection of keyboard instruments in Halle’s Händel Haus, where George Frideric Handel was born. She worked at Händel Haus as a restorer from age 22 and later went to the Hochschüle für Teknik und Wirtschaft Berlin for a degree in instrument restoration. She then spent 17 years in Tuscany in the shop and home of English harpsichord maker Tony Chinnery, where she honed her Cristofori instrument skills. She opened her own shop in 2015.
Schwarz’s studio, Animus Cristofori, in Zerbst, Germany, lies about 20 miles northeast of Köthen, the residence of Johann Sebastian Bach when he was in Prince Leopold’s employ (1717-1723).
Schwarz explained before the performance that the hammers for the instrument’s double-strung keys’ hammers are not made of wood, but a piece of a pencil-diameter-sized tube of glued-together layers of paper topped with a thin layer of leather. Its soundboard is of Tuscan cypress.
The LA Grua Center houses two other pianos, one a 1930 Mason & Hamlin model AA parlor/salon studio grand, and the other a restored 1886 Chickering grand. Classical music recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf, who is also the center’s artistic director, commissioned the Cristofori replica. For purposes of comparison, the keyboard of La Grua’s Chickering was out and on display at a table adjacent to a model of Cristofori’s single-key mechanism.