A Tale of Two Fortepianos

A beautiful 6-octave Fritz fortepiano c. 1805-10 was prepared for last week’s performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard.   It was an instrument built by a Viennese maker at the time the concerto was written  The Fritz sounded marvelous in rehearsals, with a bright shimmer and three distinct timbres throughout its range.

As occasionally happens with period instruments, this fortepiano had some technical issues during the first concert of the series at the Mondavi Center in Davis. A hammer came loose from its hammershank during rehearsal, and in performance during the middle of the slow movement  two hammers came out of their capsules; fortunately Mr. Ax was able to improvise his way through the rest of the piece without these two keys.

What to do? Fortunately, Belle Bulwinkle, the owner who generously lent the instrument, had another period instrument available, a 6 1/2-octave Schott built in 1840. Piano Technician Janine Johnson worked all day to lower the pitch of the instrument in time for that evening’s concert in Atherton, interspersed with practice time for the soloist to acquaint himself with the new instrument. The Schott had a more full-bodied sound and a larger dynamic range of which Mr. Ax took complete advantage; one imagines Beethoven, with his quest for bigger and louder instruments as his deafness progressed, would have been pleased.