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Concert Review: Pianist Junghwa Lee at the Ashburnham Community Church, 10/2/11, with the Frederick Piano Collection

On October 2, 2011, the Frederick Historical Piano Collection hosted a concert at the Ashburnham Community Church. Concert pianist Junghwa Lee, who is currently an active soloist and associate professor of piano at the Southern Illinois University, beautifully performed from memory a program of Fauré, Ravel, and Liszt. Native Korean Lee, has upcoming concerts in Missouri, Illinois, London, Paris, and Amersterdam, and has been described by various sources as a pianist of “acute intelligence,” with “flawless technique” and “masterful artistic control.” Lee is also an old friend – she and I actually went to school together at Eastman School of Music. This was her first appearance in the concert series, and it was a superb one as Lee skillfully blended historical authenticity on the centuries old piano she performed on along with dynamic interpretations.

The Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection, which supports this concert series, is a gem for classical music aficionados and the general public alike. Maintained by Patricia and Edmund Michael Frederick, this Center is a wealth of resources, mainly concentrated in their wonderful collection of over twenty early grand pianos. A main feature is their Historical Piano Concerts, a concert series featuring internationally renowned pianists performing works on selected pianos of the collection. The pianos are determined by program choice: if the pianist chooses to focus on Chopin, then the piano of choice is the 1840 Erard. If the pianist chooses to focus on piano literature by Mendelssohn, then the Tröndlin (c. 1839) might be a good choice. Performers like Junghwa Lee painstakingly research and practice, adjusting their own techniques to accommodate the often more delicate touches of these pianos. One cannot simply pound away on these pianos, sturdy as they are. Sometimes a more subtle technique is required.

On the website and in conversation with Patricia Frederick, an important issue was brought out. When thinking about these pianos in their particular historical stage of evolution and in context with the composer and the piano literature that was produced, one might ask, “what is the relation to sound and the particular instrument?” It’s an important question to think about, and it’s definitely not something performers may think about as often, especially with the more standardized grand pianos of today. Chopin, Ravel, and Liszt alike are performed on pianos like the Steinway, and we (performers and audience) don’t devote much thought to it.  But when performing these same works on older instruments, one must think about such things. These older instruments were not characterized by their uniformity of sound. Each composer wrote for a certain piano, and for a certain sound. Even more importantly, when performing on the piano the music was originally “meant for,” certain features of touch or pedaling or articulation are revealed. This is why the Fredericks place so much importance on playing Liszt on an 1877 Erard or Mendelssohn on a Tröndlin, rather than Mozart on the 1877 Erard or a Brahms on an 1845 Pleyel. The result is definitely a more historically authentic performance.

Lee’s choice of piano was the 1877 Erard extra-grande modele de concert, a favorite of composers such as Ravel and Fauré who performed, composed, and practiced mostly on such pianos. Liszt also owned several, or variants, during his time. As stated on the Collection’s website, this particular Erard, made in Paris, has a fantastic dynamic range, with 90 keys extending to a low G in the bass. This great dynamic range was shown off to great advantage in the pieces Lee chose. The piano is also characterized by its superb clarity and its slow decay – features unforgiving of mistakes. Lee’s performance was flawless.

About Sang Woo Kang