Trevor Stephenson’s restored 1855 Bösendorfer piano is a time-travel gateway that reveals forgotten secrets
Having finally fallen under the spell of Trevor Stephenson’s beguiling preconcert lectures and the compelling results of his musicianship in the recent Messiah performance by his Madison Bach Musicians, there was no way I was going to miss his lecture/recital featuring a newly restored 1855 Bösendorfer piano.
Arriving at the parking lot of the First Unitarian Society ten minutes before the preconcert lecture I discovered the lot full, and after parking a couple of blocks away entered to find the Landmark Auditorium nearly filled by 300 or more auditors. The electricity in the hall last Friday night was undeniable, and the lecture alone would have been worth the price of admission.
The tale of this unique instrument has its own twists and turns, but the gist of what gives this piano such a powerful attraction is this: it was one of the last keyboards to be built without the large metal plate used from the mid-19th century onward to secure and tension the strings of a piano. Bösendorfer died a few years after this #4233 was built, and soon after his passing his son converted over to the relatively new metal plate design. While much is gained in power, keeping the instrument in tune, and durability, the loss of transparency in the sound is incalculable. And if you also go back to a less than perfectly even tuning in use for over a century, then one can in effect enter a musical time machine and hear works by Beethoven, Chopin—and even composers who wrote after 1855—and experience them in a totally new way.
This was Stephenson’s plan, and in a program of Faure, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Schoenberg (!) and Schubert, at least one person went home feeling as though he had just soaked up one of the most impactful listening experiences of over a half-century of concert going.
The opening “Berceuse” of Faure was the original four-hands version from the composer’s “Dolly Suite,” Stephenson being ably partnered by Timothy Mueller. Available in any instrumental or orchestral version one wishes, the gently melody tinkled as if from a music box.
Perhaps more intriguing was a pair of Chopin nocturnes, first the Op. posthumous in C-sharp minor (an early work) and the D-flat, Op. 27, No. 2. Stephenson had explained that earlier patterns of tuning (despite being about a century after Bach’s famous “Well-tempered Clavier”) started by making C Major the most “purely” tuned key, and the farther away one gets by adding many sharps or flats, the more ambiguous the intervallic relationships become. The result in these Chopin works was to hear the pieces as if light was being viewed through a different kind of prism.
A stark and fascinating contrast then to hear Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21in C Major, Op 53, “Waldstein.” Beethoven would not have even had access to a keyboard as strong and wonderful as the 1855 Bösendorfer before he died in 1827, but to hear the celestial theme of the finale, all C Major glow and seeming to float off the keys, was to gain a new glimpse into what the near-deaf composer may have heard in his inner ear.
It was not surprising to find Debussy’s early Suite Bergamasque well suited to a piano that was already a near-antique when the Frenchman’s early opus presaged the onset of Impressionism. “Clair de Lune,” the third movement of the suite, could hardly have emerged any more limpid.
One could genuinely question why Stephenson would even think of playing Schoenberg on such a piano, but the explanation was cogent. The “Six Little Piano Pieces,” Op. 19 predate the Viennese master’s codification of twelve-tone writing, but atonal they are. Stephenson said that he wanted to see what would happen, and the answer for him was that the 1885 keyboard does a great job “of fighting against what Schoenberg was trying to do; modern pianos too easily give him what he was looking for.” Given the brevity of the works (scarcely ten minutes in all, if that), it was a worthy curiosity.
But better still to go back to Schubert, and his “Moment Musicaux No. 6”; another minor miracle, like seeing a great old painting with all the years of dirt removed. The encore was too short, but could scarcely have been sweeter, the “Gymnopedies No. 1” of Satie. One left hoping for not more encores, but a whole new programmatic excursion on this instrument. Happily, Stephenson had mentioned that recording on his “new” piano is definitely in the works.