The Gift of the 88 Gods
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Beethoven, Cristofori & The Pianist’s First Century”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major (“Emperor”), Opus 73
Shai Wosner (Pianist), Bradley Strauchen-Scherer (Remarks)
The Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein (Conductor/Speaker)
“I shall look upon it as an altar upon which I shall place the most beautiful offerings of my spirit to the divine Apollo.”
Ludwig van Beethoven, before being presented with a Broadwood Piano (Circa 1817)
“Piano: An instrument operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.”
Ambroce Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
What keys to Elysium were created by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1698? That was when the harpsichord-maker devised a new tool which resonated, which could play loud and soft and which revolutionized art forever more?
That was the subject posed by Leon Botstein and Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, the Associate Curator of the Met’s Department of Musical Instruments this afternoon. Conductor Botstein found it necessary to postpone his lecture/performance talks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art these past few years. Something about a bug or two flying around the world. His return was a time for rejoicing threefold.
Both Mr. Botstein’s exhaustive musical/social history and having an esteemed soloist giving both examples and complete works. One rarely finds a practicing musician like Mr Botstein who can explain the intricacies of virtually every era, period or peculiarity in music history.
The third reason for rejoicing is that most of Mr. Botstein’s concerts–both with the American Symphony Orchestra and his own creation, The Orchestra Now–go on for almost three hours. The length is not objectionable. But we learned yesterday, a single work played by the right performer gives such an emotional singularity that further works simply dilute the experience.
Onto that later. The first half of the program, with visual illustrations from the Met Instrument Division, started with Cristofori, “Instrument Curator to the Medicis”, and the first forte e piano. Unlike the plucking virginal or harpsichord (both of which Cristofori had dabbled with), his invention gave loud and soft music, the change from plucking to striking the keys giving a new resonant sound. The “extra keys” (he went up to five octaves) gave more potential for the composer. And best of all–or worst of all–anybody could play it.
It left the Medici Tuscany household quickly, and since copyrights were unknown, manufacturers in London, Paris and Germany were soon producing their own.
L. Botstein/S. Wosner (© Matt Dines/shaiwosner.com)
After the technical explanations, Mr. Botstein started the good stuff, thanks to The Orchestra Now and that splendid young pianist Shai Wosner. The thesis was that Beethoven was overjoyed with a gift from the British Broadwood Conpany so he insisting on proving its worth, even before receiving it. Both with the Hammerklavier sonata (which wasn’t mentioned for some reason) and pièce du jour, Beethoven’s final piano concerto.
He was given the Broadwood a few years after the Emperor. But he certainly knew of its value and composed for the instrument. Mr. Botstein explained that this piano (now with 67 keys) was, for the composer, a merge of technology and musical ideas.
Mr. Wosner demonstrated that with the “Emperor” Concerto examples. Showing how Beethoven was literally showing off the extended keyboard, How Beethoven showed the colors and resonance with hands going top and bottom of the piano. How he took every advantage of both inspiration and new machine to make the most of his composition.
Of course the 30-minute lecture went into far more. Not mentioned, though, was that Beethoven never heard his Broadwood piano. Except in his mind. His deafness, now almost complete, precluded the real thing.
Still, with Beethoven’s mind, one has the feeling that his idealized Fifth Piano Concerto might have made yesterday’s Steinway sound like a spinet!
After the intermission, Wosner, Botstein and The Orchestra Now launched into the Concerto without an iota of homage to the original Broadwood. Mr. Wosner and the orchestra played full volume, with full colors and yes, it sounded, imperial. This was a Steinway, the auditorium had the dry sounds which were rare in even the early 20th Century.
Yet if one must give a word to Mr. Wosner, it would be “lyrical”. Yes, those opening arpeggios were broad, almost overwhelming, as was the finale. Yet Mr. Wosner has the most fluid touch, even amid the trumpets and horns and percussion background.
It was a terrific performance. One likes to believe that the cherubic-looking Bartolomeo Cristofori would have happily given his imprimatur, as did we all.