The other day, I heard Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1, performed live on a nineteenth-century Corning Steinway piano. As Igal Kesselman, the pianist, made his way through that nocturne’s melancholy, stormy, and contemplative sections, in the background a woman checked out a flouncy silver-grey dress on the racks at Ann Taylor. The Steinway, it turned out, was also for sale. Kesselman was one of dozens of professional and amateur pianists who played on six pianos set up at the World Financial Center as part of “Chopin 200: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Composer and His Music” held at the Winter Garden and complex from March 1 to 5. These free events began each day at 9 a.m. with “aficionado open mic” performances, followed from noon to 7 p.m. by a parade of established and up-and-coming professional pianists, and at 7 p.m. a featured performer on the Fazioli concert grand piano on the big Winter Garden stage. The six pianos, with manufacturers ranging from Steinway, Fazioli, and Kawai to the lesser-known Sauter and Wilhelm Steinberg, were stationed near escalators, near shops like Ann Taylor and Ciao Bella, and in the big open area near the palm trees.
In case you had somehow missed the news, this year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth—March 1, 1810—with various celebrations including the major renovation and reopening on March 1 of the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, near Chopin’s hometown of Zelazowa Wola. On the last day of “Chopin 200,” here in New York, I stopped by the World Financial Center in late afternoon. The first Chopin I heard was Soyoung Min performing the famous “Marche Funebre” (aka “Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you”) from the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, on a very bright and resonant piano manufactured by Wilhelm Steinberg, a maker in Eisenberg, Germany. The program explained that Min, a master’s degree candidate in piano performance at NYU, will be performing Chopin’s entire piano repertoire over the next two years. As she played in the lobby of 1 WFC for the Chopin marathon, Min maintained her intense focus throughout mazurkas and impromptus and sonatas, although the backdrop included elevators dinging their arrivals, conversations, toddlers crying, and squeaky luggage being hauled through the corridors. I heard Junko Ichikawa perform four or five Chopin selections on a piano manufactured by the German maker Sauter, ending with the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, considered by many the most difficult of the ballades—competing all the while with the sounds of Wall Streeters whooping it up in a bar at the level just below.
It was great to hear top-notch pianists playing wall-to-wall Chopin for free, outside the usual concert hall space, for passersby who might not normally hear this music. The background noise and corporate/mall setting weren’t the only things differentiating it, though, from the intimate salons in the homes of the upper class, or public concerts in small halls of Chopin’s time.
The bigger issue when it comes to Chopin may be the piano instrument itself, which has changed greatly over the past 200 years. In classical music nowadays, we are mostly accustomed to the sweet, singing sounds of a modern Steinway, whether it’s Beethoven or Chopin or Brahms or Schubert. The hundred-year-old Corning Steinway at the World Financial Center sounded more muted—individual notes popped out less, and the sound seemed more diffuse—than newer Steinways played in concert halls. Jan Swafford’s excellent article in Slate this month is full of enlightening examples of how the piano that Beethoven or Liszt played is so different from the ones we hear now that it drastically changes the way their music sounds. Swafford demonstrates with audio examples the difference between the opening of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata played on a Steinway by Alfred Brendel and by Gayle Martin Henry on an 1805 Viennese Katholing piano; or between Brahms Rhapsody No. 3 played on a moder Steinway by Radu Lupu and on an 1871 Streicher by Ira Braus. When you first listen to the opening from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata as played on the 1805 Katholing, your ear will barely register the sound as audible. But within several minutes, you get used to hearing the more woody, less “ringing” instrument and begin to appreciate how well it can suit Beethoven’s often pummeling, rhythmic counterpoint, even if this all takes place within a narrower dynamic range. It’s quieter, but the wood actually rattles more, which can create hair-raising effects.
One of Swafford’s most interesting points is how our ears need time to adjust to the narrower sound world of pianos from 150 or 200 years ago. There’s a lot of discussion of changing dynamics in rock music, where the average decibel level has been inching up for the last few decades. But over a longer time span, pianos have also been getting louder.
Coming soon: more on musical instruments in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum’s recently reopened André Mertens collection.
Photo: At the Winter Garden for “Chopin 200″: Fazioli concert grand piano, on stage in background Shigeru Kawai amidst palm trees, closer in foreground.