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.

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