Dallas — What first appeared to be a departure for the historically correct Dallas Bach Society, a program of songs by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, turned out to be right in line with their raison d'être. Artistic Director James Richman accompanied the magnificent soprano Ava Pine in a program of all of those non-Baroque composers, but on the historically correct fortepiano. Held in the stunning residence of Sarah Titus and Tilda Morris, all of the other hallmarks of a Bach Society house concert were there: excellent food, fine wines and important on a rainy night, valet parking.
The fortepiano piano was so named because, unlike the harpsichord, it could play dynamics: forte (loud) and piano (soft) as well as all gradations in between. Whereas the harpsichord used a pick on a lever to pluck the strings, the fortepiano used leather-covered hammers attached to a mechanism that hit the string with the same force as the player kit the key. This is the same basic design of the modern piano.
The fortepiano still had thin harpsichord strings, so the sound was somewhere in between that and the modern piano, but it was a gigantic leap forward for composers when it appeared in the 1720s. It stuck around until late in Beethoven’s life, but was always morphing towards the modern Steinway-model instrument.
Richman started off with a perfect example of the instrument’s limitations, but also its glory. Beethoven marks the first movement of his famous “Moonlight Sonata” that it should be played with the damper, what we now call the sustaining pedal, engaged for the entire movement. On a modern piano, with its extended decay, this would create a sonic mush. With the short decay of the fortepiano, as he demonstrated, it sounded like it was being played softly in a gigantic cathedral. Unreproducible on any other instrument, the sound was magical.
The performances that followed were just as revealing. As a result of the more soft-spoken instrument, Pine’s first entrance sounded like it was amplified. But it was only then that we were able to appreciate the superb acoustics of the large room. Realizing this, Pine kept her voice within the limitations of both the room and the repertoire, only opening up for moments that required her full voice. When she did, especially in the final song of the evening, Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh, it was resplendent.
The program took us through a series of songs by Mozart, Haydn and Schubert, as promised, that she grouped by subject as defined by a few stanzas of poetry. They showed off her impeccable command of her voice, but also of her German and French and her equal command of English, as demonstrated by some songs by Haydn.
This was an exceptionally enjoyable evening, even though the biblical level of rain battered us as we arrived and left. Hearing these songs accompanied by the instrument for which they were written was revelatory. Ava Pine sang them with consummate vocalism and careful attention to every phrase. She treated each song as a little miniature opera scene, telling us the story without ever exceeding the boundaries of a recital format.
Another such concert, maybe all Schubert, would be most welcome.