Exploring what’s inside the music, pianist Edmund Battersby plays an all-Chopin concert on two different instruments in Richardson Auditorium on Thursday, October 12, at 8 p.m. “It’s not about the instruments,” he says in a telephone interview from his Bloomington, Indiana, home, “it’s about finding out what the music means, what makes it tick.”
Battersby opens the concert using a replica of a fortepiano made by Conrad Graf in Vienna about 1825. The Graf pianos had wooden frames, leather hammers, and five pedals. They were known for their warm sound and their variety of nuance. Although, in their time, they were relatively powerful instruments, their maximum volume is noticeably less than the modern grand piano. Chopin used a Graf piano for his 1829 Vienna debut.
After intermission Battersby turns to Richardson’s Steinway concert grand with its iron frame, felt hammers, and three pedals.
“The Graf I’m playing in Princeton is a large instrument,” Battersby says. “It has a six-octave span. Beethoven started with a five-octave instrument. At the end of his life he had a Graf. Between 1810 and 1830 Graf was the prized piano. Schubert probably couldn’t afford one.” The modern Steinway has a compass of more than seven octaves.
“When you’re playing fortepiano, the priorities are different for both the player and the listener,” Battersby says. “The sound is lighter and more transparent. It takes less physical weight to play the instrument. There’s more intimacy. The period instruments are about finesse and control. Because you don’t have to practice for endurance, your mind is free to be more intellectual.
“The period instrument teaches you something about the music that you couldn’t know if you first confronted the music on a modern piano. It has changed my aesthetic. Transparency was part of the music at the time of Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin. For years people thought of Schumann as writing lush music. But I recorded his Kreisleriana for the Musical Heritage Society on a period instrument, and people were amazed. All the inner voices were in relief.”
Battersby says the Schumann aesthetic has changed not just because of the instrument. “Many pianists today pride themselves on playing with transparency. Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, and Maurizio Pollini all have priorities of texture. They’re not so interested in thick, oil colors all the time.” Battersby seems to be documenting an international movement. Perahia is American, Schiff is Hungarian, and Pollini is Italian.
Battersby was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a dentist father and a mother who devoted herself to raising the pianist, his four brothers, and their sister. At seven, he attended a piano recital that included music by Schubert and Rachmaninoff, “I was mesmerized,” he says. “I was so taken, I decided that I wanted to play.” With piano lessons undertaken at age nine, he considers himself to be a “late starter” at the piano.
He studied in Ann Arbor until finishing high school at age 17, and then moved to New York City to earn both bachelors and master’ degrees at the Juilliard School.
To gain the maximum benefit from a fortepiano, listeners need to adjust their expectations, according to Battersby. “The modern instrument has incredible stamina. It can play in big halls because its decibel level is greater than the fortepiano, and it stays in tune better because of the iron frame. There’s no point in coming to a concert with a period instrument expecting loudness. You have to accept the period instrument on its own terms. Then you can very quickly start to experience something very different.”
Battersby has another caution for the audience. “Those of us who are into period instruments are just approximating something. We can’t know how the instruments have changed over time. Modern replicas may not be exact replicas. A violin or a bottle of wine takes a while to come into its own. Besides that, our ears today are different from the ears of people who were alive in 1830. We listen differently than a person who has not heard a jet plane or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or a rock band. Plus, the rooms in which concerts were played are different.
“The modern piano puts music through a blender. As time went on, the sound of the modern piano became the ideal sound. With the Graf, you still have your crunch. It’s like vegetables that are not overcooked. When these pieces were written, separate detail was important. You can hear the detail on the period instruments. And you can see it in the clothing and architecture of the time.”
Battersby has already anticipated that “people with some background will ask why I’m playing Chopin on an instrument that predated his compositions.” Chopin, who lived from 1810 to 1849, was only 15 when the original version of Battersby’s fortepiano was built. “Chopin developed his style in Vienna on a Graf instrument,” Battersby says. “When he went to Paris in 1831, he detested the popular Erard pianos, and preferred Pleyel instruments because they reminded him of his Viennese Graf instrument.” He considered the Erard instruments “too insistent.”
Physically weak, Chopin did not have the strength to play loudly on any instrument, even had it been capable of a big sound. Eyewitnesses report that, in order to marshal his physical resources, he used minimal movement. From Vienna in 1829 Chopin wrote, “It is being said everywhere that I played too softly, or, rather, too delicately for people used to the piano pounding of the artists here.” In France, his nuanced performances, often for audiences of no more than 150, drew admiration for their expressiveness. Both as composer and performer Chopin grew a reputation as a master of the keyboard.
In programming Chopin selections for his October 12 performance, either on the fortepiano in the earlier part of his Princeton program or on the modern Steinway in the later part, Battersby is guided by the sound of the instrument he uses. “To a certain extent I’m using the period instrument for pieces that are illuminated by it,” he says. “In the first half a lot is revealed that you won’t hear on a modern instrument. In the second half of the program I’m playing pieces that work on a modern piano; I would never say that they work better on a modern piano.”
Another major consideration in Battersby’s programming is whether a particular piece can be pegged as pianistic, or whether it has a less specific musical existence. Battersby uses the term “instrumental” for the more pianistic works and “universal” or “abstract” for the less pianistic works. The pianistic first half of his program consists of the F minor Ballade — “It’s from Chopin’s last period, but it sounds unbelievably beautiful on the fortepiano; Chopin said that he always had the Viennese piano in his mind” — an early Nocturne, Impromptus, and Waltzes, which, Battersby says, “totally come to life.”
The less pianistic second half of the program consists of the E-flat Nocturne, Op. 55 (“It works on a modern piano, but it works better if the performer has some sense of the period instrument,” says Battersby), Mazurkas (“In choosing the program, I felt that the Waltzes are more instrumental, and the Mazurkas are more universal; they’re such pure music. Most listeners think of Chopin as totally pianistic but the Mazurkas don’t lose out if they’re considered abstract”) and “the big” — Battersby’s word — B-minor sonata.
In the end, Battersby concludes that fine music transcends the medium that delivers it. “If you’re playing great music,” he says, “the music is greater than the instrument.” The fortepiano, in his opinion, is simply a device for communicating the music to an audience. “Playing fortepiano is a peripheral thing for me, not a full time affair.”
Battersby’s career has been both as a performer and as an academic. As a faculty member at New Jersey’s Montclair State University he started an early piano festival in 1986. In 1992 Montclair commissioned the fortepiano that he will play in Princeton. The maker is Rodney Regier of Freeport, Maine. Battersby took both the festival and the piano with him when he moved to Indiana University in 1995.
Among Battersby’s New Jersey gigs are playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and his “Concerto in F” with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He also performed at the now-defunct Rutgers SummerFest.
His discography includes a 1986 recording of music by Chopin and Schumann for Musical Heritage Society on a Graf piano replica, and a 2005 two-disc recording of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” on both period and modern instruments for Naxos.
Battersby lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and has an apartment in New York City, as well as what he calls “a little house on the coast of Maine” located several hours from the shop of Regier, who built the Graf replica. Regier’s fortepiano replica is now kept at the University in Bloomington.
Battersby’s two grown children have strong musical interests that follow a direction different from their father’s. Son Julian plays drums in rock band but that’s not his day job. “He’s into reggae,” his father says. Daughter Justine sometimes manages rock concerts, likewise not a day job.
In his forays into the world of the fortepiano Battersby himself enjoys being liberated from enslavement to the grand piano. “I’m starting not to be the only one,” he says. “Emanuel Ax has played fortepiano at Tanglewood. Peter Serkin has used it. Some pianists are feeling the benefits of knowing the instrument that the music was written for. In Europe there’s less separation between players of period instruments and players of modern instruments.”
For Battersby, Vienna-born pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who began to perform on period instruments in the 1950s, is a model. “I wouldn’t say Badura-Skoda is a fortepianist,” Battersby comments. “He’s a pianist. That’s how I want to be.”
Edmund Battersby, Thursday, October 12, 8 p.m., Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Piano recital of works by Chopin. $20 to $40. 609-258-5000.