Jorgensen and Bryant discuss their CD of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, played on period instruments.
Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
Listening to Beethoven on early 19th-century instruments is the next best thing to time travel.
On their CD recording of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin (Albany Records TROY 1825–28), released in July 2020, violinist Jerilyn Jorgensen and pianist Cullan Bryant play all 10 sonatas on restored historical instruments, transporting listeners back in time to 19th-century Vienna.
As historical performance practice instrumentalists, Jorgensen, a member of Colorado College’s performance faculty, and Bryant, a chamber musician based in New York, are breaking new ground. They are the first duo from the United States to release Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas on period instruments from an American collection.
Their expertise in classical-era performance practice has led to invitations from the Historical Keyboard Society of North America in 2018 and 2021, performances at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, and an early-piano concert series in North Carolina.
In 2020, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, a year flooded with Beethoven recordings, their interpretation stands out, offering listeners an opportunity to hear Beethoven’s music as it sounded during his lifetime.
On a first or superficial listening, listeners may find the sonic differences between period and modern instruments rather subtle. But after learning about the historical context and the technological developments in instrument making, listeners will be better able to identify and appreciate the musical nuances.
“Playing on period instruments doesn’t lend one to being more academic in one’s interpretation,” Bryant says. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It invites more emotional involvement, and in the case of Beethoven, a little more insanity, a more romantic interpretation.
“The instrument is telling you how to play. It is telling you what it needs to express the music. You don’t play the same (as on modern instruments), and you gain a new insight into what Beethoven was looking for interpretively. It is precious.”
On the album, Jorgensen uses a Viennese classical-era violin constructed by Andrea Carolus Leeb in 1797, and four period bows. The Leeb violin is one of few surviving period violins with the original neck setup, which allows for traditional gut strings.
The modern violin fingerboard and neck setup allows for greater tension on the modern wire strings. This creates a larger, louder sound that can fill a larger concert hall, but it does not necessarily reflect the sound that Beethoven had in mind while composing.
The distinctive aesthetic of Jorgensen’s period violin, when compared to a modern violin, is the most striking difference of the recordings. The sound is slightly thinner and quieter, almost delicate at times, yet it also has a deep, rich resonance and profound, lyrical expressivity.
Bryant recorded the album on five historical pianos from the Frederick Collection, which is located in Ashburnham, Mass., a small town located 50 miles north of Boston. The Fredericks own the largest playable, historical piano collection in the United States, which currently includes 24 restored pianos, dating from 1795 to 1928, mostly built in Vienna and Paris.
“We went up there originally to choose a piano for the set,” Bryant says. “But both of us were like kids in a candy store. The character of each piano lent itself so wonderfully to the music.”
“I was absolutely blown away,” Jorgensen adds. “This is the best collection of working early pianos that you can play in the United States.”
For Bryant, playing on these different period pianos was difficult at first, due to the difference in touch and size from a modern piano. For each recording session, he needed a few days to adapt his technique.
“The pianos sound dramatically different than a modern piano, (in terms of) the clarity, the smallness of the instrument and the technique,” Bryant says. “There is a great distance between a sforzando and pianissimo. For a pianissimo, you can’t even see your fingers move.”
Despite Bryant’s assertions, the differences between the period pianos and the modern piano can be quite subtle, especially when compared to the period vs. modern violin. Overall, the Frederick Collection’s pianos can be distinguished by a quicker speed of attack and less sustain when a note is played and a solid dynamic range, allowing for extremely quiet moments that maintain clarity and gradual, steady dynamic builds.
The collection’s oldest piano, an unsigned Viennese style piano from 1795, is featured on the album’s opening work, Sonata No. 1 in D major. The piano, with a reverse-color, five-octave keyboard and geometric-patterned case, has a somewhat sharp attack, though this is balanced by an overall lightness of sound.
A piano by Caspar Katholnig, used for Sonatas 3, 5, 6 and 7, has a notable historical connection with Beethoven. In the early 19th century, this piano, built between 1805 and 1810, was housed in Esterházy palace, located outside of Vienna in Eisenstadt. Prince Nikolas II Esterházy, known for being the last patron of Haydn, also supported Beethoven early on and in 1807 commissioned his Mass in C. This instrument has a deeper, richer tone than the 1795 piano, lending itself well to the passionate turmoil and expressivity of these four middle-period sonatas.
For the 10th sonata, composed in 1812, Bryant chose a Bösendorfer piano built between 1828 and 1832. Ignaz Bösendorfer was an apprentice of Joseph Brodmann, whose piano was used for Sonatas 2 and 8. He later became one of Vienna’s most influential piano makers, after being championed by Franz Liszt in 1838. The company still exists today, though owned by the Yamaha Corporation. The Bösendorfer‘s sound is almost modern, with more sustain, a smoother attack and greater aural consistency.
To complement the Bösendorfer’s aesthetic, Jorgensen uses a modern style bow, built in 1830, rather than the transitional bows she used for the first nine sonatas. The transitional bows, referring to those in use between the Baroque bows of the 17th century and the more modern bows of the 19th century, were designed to resonate more than project.
In contrast, the convex modern bow, developed in France by François Tourte in the early 19th century, was designed to project in larger concert halls. The bow is capable of more tension on the bow hairs and thus a louder sound. Jorgensen felt a modern bow would better match the “sustaining quality of the piano and the lyrical lines of the 10th sonata,” Jorgensen says.
”The 10th sonata is sitting on the cusp of Beethoven’s late period,” Bryant adds. “He got more introspective with more lyrical, longer lines.”
Overall, Jorgensen and Bryant present a unique window into Beethoven’s musical world that is both intellectually and sonically stimulating. Though the album is still enjoyable for casual listeners, to truly understand the musical significance, listeners must commit to deeper, dedicated listening with an ear for subtle differences.
“I hope that (listeners) will be able to hear the music in a new way,” Jorgensen says. “(Period classical instruments) are not anything that people have necessarily heard before. I am hoping that people will say, ‘Wow! That really caught my attention. I never really heard it that way before.’
“I hope they will be entranced with the sound and feel transported back in time a little bit.”
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NOTE: For more information on bows, watch the documentary The Bowmakers, presented online during the holidays by the Friends of Chamber Music in Denver. The stream of The Bowmakers will open Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, and be available through Sunday Dec. 6.
The documentary features Brooklyn Rider, the Miró and Dover quartets. More information and streaming tickets are available here.