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January 2014
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Look Again at Beethoven


WFMT’s New Release of the Week

It’s a challenge for contemporary artists to tread such a well-traveled road as the Beethoven Cello Sonatas. Most major cellists record them, but when Steven Isserlis and fortepianist Robert Levin step up, people get excited. Both artists are widely acclaimed for making music at the highest level while observing period performance practices.

It is one thing on a modern piano to choose a loud dynamic more or less arbitrarily to match the energy of the cello playing full out. It is something altogether different when the fortepiano also has to play full out to match the cello’s output. These players (Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin), pushing each other to the limit, achieved a gripping excitement seldom heard in these works from the combination of cello and modern piano.

—James R. Oestreich, The New York Times

WFMT’s New Release of the Week features this Beethoven set. See the video of Steven Isserlis discussing the priceless instruments. Throughout January WFMT celebrates the cello, the repertoire and the artists.

See a profile on Steven Isserlis.

An excerpt from Robert Levin’s Facebook Page:

Today’s concert grands have a lineage that begins with English pianos, developed by the French (Pleyel, Érard) and then the Americans. The Viennese pianos of Beethoven’s time have narrow keys, more shallow key depth (both characteristics lasting until the early 1840s), parallel stringing (overstringing was initiated by Steinway and Chickering), and hammers whose shanks face back to front and strike as close to the wrestplank at the pinblock as possible. In contrast, the Anglo/French/American hammer shanks go front to back and strike much farther back.

The result is that Viennese pianos have a far greater hammer velocity that puts a prize on declamation; they speak, whereas later pianos are designed to sing. The increase in string tension in later pianos through the use of a large plate over the sound board causes the sound to bloom slower and sustain longer than Beethoven’s (and earlier) pianos.

Overstringing focuses the sound but forces the player to choose the most important voice and play the others more lightly, whereas on parallel strong pianos, there is no need to choose, as every voice can be heard with equal clarity at a consistent volume. The weight of the action on Viennese pianos is much lighter, requiring far greater control to achieve evenness and voicing; the heavier pianos of the last 125 years require more muscle, but the resistance helps mechanical control.

—Robert Levin


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