The days are long past in which the rare release of a recording made on a fortepiano would attract caustic comments about the instrument sounding “like an old piano left to rot in some attic“. These days, it's a rare month in which you don't see several such recordings, meeting an admiring welcome from critics and audiences more and more attuned to this sort of musical heritage. But it's very rare indeed to get the chance to appreciate these venerable instruments in a live concert. Founded in Paris by Sylvie Brély, La Nouvelle Athènes – the Centre for Romantic Pianos – is therefore a timely arrival: here is a body that seeks to become the epicentre of research on antique keyboards and the history of their use in performance, as well as organising regular concerts so that they can be heard today.

Sylvie Brély and the Streicher 1847 at La Nouvelle Athènes © Bernard Talagas
Sylvie Brély and the Streicher 1847 at La Nouvelle Athènes
© Bernard Talagas

La Nouvelle Athènes will be starting off with four evenings at Salle Cortot in Paris: December 11th, 18th and 20th, and February 7th. The programmes are typical of the Parisian romantic era, juxtaposing in the same evening poetry recital, opera, instrumental music and contemporary works of the day with others unearthed from ancient repertoire. Music lovers are being invited to an experience which is sonic, musical and intellectual and creates a kind of school, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, made of encounters, confrontations, discoveries. There are works to be discovered that are tightly bound to the instruments for which they were created, whose diverse sounds enable one to understand the evolution of music, interpretation and instrument-making. Many harpsichordists and fortepiano players will be there to put on display an extraordinary variety of instruments, ranging from a 1749 Silberman to an 1848 Streicher!

But where does the piano come in all this? It's born in Italy around 1700 in the workshop of Bartolomeo Cristofori from a mixed marriage of the harpsichord (from which it gets its keyboard) and the clavichord (from which it takes its ability to play both loud and soft and to follow a singing line like a human voice). It sows the wild oats of its youth in Austria, Germany and especially in France in the Romantic years of 1830-40, before emigrating to the USA to throw its past out of the window and impose itself into the concert hall as soon as World War I was over (in the shape of the famed brand of Steinway and Sons). And there, in a nutshell, is the fabulous history of an instrument which pioneered assembly line manufacturing techniques in the West well before Henry Ford set up factories based on Division of Labour.

The piano became a social marker, as potent a symbol of the bourgeoisie as the harpsichord had been of the nobility in pre-revolutionary France. All this while, it transcended social class, since the piano was equally at ease in the homes of the wealthy as it was in the concert halls or in the brothels and saloons of the Wild West. Times having changed, the great auto-da-fés of the piano, which took place in the US in the mid 19th century, served not for the destruction of symbols of power but to save an industry which, as yet incognisant of planned obsolescence, had become unable to sell new pianos and was threatened with extinction. The law ordered the burning of all square pianos, to be replaced by grands and uprights, with the intention of saving an industry and its numerous jobs.

In spite of severe criticism, the piano excited the interest of composers from its very first days, from the Italo-Spanish Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), who owned many, up to the American (and later Mexican) Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), whose rhythmic and polyphonic madness dispensed with the pianist's fingers to replace them with the perforated cardboard of the player piano. At the heart of its repertoire are the great figures of Viennese classicism: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (who expanded the repertoire to the point of explosion while dreaming of an instrument that would never come into being); next those of the Romantic era, with Chopin and Liszt at their head, who would accompany the profound changes in an instrument whose possibilities they amplified. Later, Debussy, Albéniz and Ravel would pay homage to this double inheritance; finally, there were some composers who exceeded the capacities of an instrument which would evolve into something bigger, heavier, more robust under the hands of its performer, with a thicker sound able to compete with a large orchestra.

This fabulous story interweaves instrument-making, metallurgy, the business of art, the society audiences, performers and composers. It turned the history of music on its head as far as creating the relationship between audiences and concerts as we know it today, so much so that few people are aware that before Franz Liszt (1811-1886), no-one played whole works from memory, alone on stage, from beginning to end of a “recital” – a name that Liszt invented in 1840. It's as if a whole phase of music history had vanished in a puff of smoke.

The centre for romantic piano La Nouvelle Athènes wants to set out the detail of this adventure by assembling everything about it: to tell the story both to music lovers and to musicians. Its founder Sylvie Brély explains “We want to bring tightly together collectors, makers and restorers of antique pianos, pianists and harpsichords playing them in a well-informed way, students wishing to explore this path, musicology researchers and music critics as well as the general public”. How to achieve this? By organising “conferences, workshops, concerts, themed recitals, masterclasses and places of public exchange inspired by the atmosphere of the famous Nouvelle Athènes, the district of Paris where Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Kalkbrenner, Herz, Sand, Heine, Delacroix met each other daily”.

It's interesting to ask Edoardo Torbianelli, a musicologist, teacher and fortepiano player closely associated with La Nouvelle Athènes, how an Italian musician of his generation came to encounter this ancestor of the modern piano. “I was a pianist, but I started to be interested in the harpsichord before I was 20 years old and I worked with Italian musicians. I was enthralled by early music, but in those days in Italy, there were few musicological sources and few playable instruments. Then I continued my piano and harpsichord studies in Antwerp in Belgium, where I found some very well-endowed libraries which enabled me to tackle head-on the playing even of very old pianos and the texts published about them. But even before that, I had become passionate about early pianos. When I was in my teens, as soon as I saw one, I couldn't leave the room without touching it. At that time – over thirty years ago because I'm pushing fifty – there wasn't the interest in fortepianos that there is today”.

Edoardo Torbianelli © Choukhri Dje
Edoardo Torbianelli
© Choukhri Dje

But how do you shift from a modern piano to antique instruments – is it really that simple? “Actually, when I was studying in Belgium, I had various technical crises, which I resolved by the expedient of researching historical sources. In Flanders, everything I needed was in the library and I was very impassioned, hungry for knowledge. Bit by bit, I began to feel able to master early keyboards and to understand the whys and wherefores. And then, everything really started when I was appointed professor at the Schola Cantorum in Basel in Switzerland. Suddenly, I had access to many instruments, to whole collections, I was able, increasingly, to play in public and make recordings. And also to raise my game with an increasing knowledge of historic instruments”.

In point of fact, Torbianelli belongs to a pivotal generation whose trajectory has been relatively classic (piano, then harpsichord, then fortepiano), whereas today, there are harpsichordists who have spent no more than a few months with a modern piano before moving on directly to keyboard instruments with plucked strings. But is there a new generation of fortepiano specialists who haven't arrived by way of the modern Steinway? “I don't think so... The fortepiano is generally chosen by a musician who is already playing a harpsichord or a modern piano." Does that influence the mode of playing? “Most – but not all – of those coming from the harpsichord have a more limited repertoire than those who come from the modern piano, for reasons of instrumental technique.”

Is it appropriate that so many pianists today, whose day job is on modern pianos, play fortepiano only occasionally? The question arises when you see the large number of recordings released every month on early pianos ranging from the classical period to the start of the 20th century. "To my ears, these have variable levels of interest. There are pianists who have perhaps happened upon period instruments because it's in vogue. Even if some of them are clearly sincere in their approach, attracted by the sonority which is so different, they still don't have a deeply rooted basis for the aesthetic of the piano technique of the period... which, by the way, one can also employ on modern instruments. There is so much to be researched in the areas of accenting, flexibility of phrasing, timbral relationships between voices, pedal use, the different methods of generating sustain or of harmony with one's fingers. All these things are key to early music technique but neglected in our time by many players of modern instruments who make rather heavy and imprecise use of the pedal: they could use some of these methods.”

But if you take a modern performer with great technical mastery and a fine ear for music, isn't it easier to play an instrument from 1890-1900 than a Pleyel or an Erard dating from 1830 or 1840? “Yes, it's certainly easier. But of course, one still needs to understand and experience the evolution of instrument-making to understand it properly. The intent of La Nouvelle Athènes is to create a network of instruments in excellent condition and ally that with knowledge, musicians, researchers and students to enable these explorations and the deepening of our understanding. And we've already made enormous progress.”

Click here to read more about the concerts staged by La Nouvelle Athènes.

This article was sponsored by La Nouvelle Athènes – Centre des pianos romantiques.

English translation by David Karlin