Online Performance: A Step Forward

by Tomoko Sugawara

Tomoko Sugawara is an historical harp specialist living in New York City. She teaches and performs internationally and is a co-founder of the Eurasia Consort. Ms. Sugawara, frustrated with online performances that rely on musicians recording separately to click tracks or other pre-recorded material, is exploring new ways to make online performance interactive and natural. 

On March 19th, I presented a concert sponsored by Country Dance New York called “The Sound of Five harps, III”.  I played a Modern pedal harp, a Baroque Triple harp, an Irish harp, a Renaissance harp and an ancient Asian harp, known as Kugo.  It was my third concert in the series, presented in the midst of the pandemic, and this time I collaborated with Lisa Terry, a masterful player of the viola da gamba.

It was an online concert, but I didn’t want to present it the way musicians often handle this situation: one player first records his/her part, and the second player listens to it and adds his/her part. In my opinion this approach results in something that is not comfortable for me, because the musicians cannot really respond to each other in a natural way.

Lisa and I had worked using programs designed for interactive online music performance,  JackTrip and JamKazam.  For this concert we used JamKazam.  But even with the program working properly, we found the latency (time lag between our two audio signals) intolerable in the final JamKazam recording.

To get around this problem I decided to work this way: we played together through JamKazam and at the same time, we recorded ourselves individually on our home equipment.  Then later I edited the two parts together using Adobe Premiere Pro to adjust for latency. The results were acceptable, see the video below.

Fortunately, we could work this way because both of us live in New York.  If we had resided on the East and West Coasts, it might be more difficult to perform together through JamKazam or JackTrip.

Still, I dream of playing online with video and sound even with Japanese musicians!  For that, we have to await more advanced technology.

See the video with Tomoko Sugawara and Lisa Terry.:


For more about Tomoko Sugawara, visit:

Bach and the Lautenwerck

By George Bozarth
Co-Artistic Director, Musique du Jour Presents

One of the very special historical instruments in our collection at the Skagit Early Keyboard Museum (SEKM) is a re-creation of a late Baroque Lautenwerck, built by Stephen Sørli of Amherst, MA. Everyone who hears it is thoroughly enchanted by its intensely sweet and intimate sound. (The following essay is adapted from “The Baroque LUTE-HARPSICHORD: A Forgotten Instrument,” http://www.baroquemusic.org/barluthp.html.)

Steven Sørli, Lautenwerck

Steve Sørli

Over the period from the mid-15th century to the mid-18th century, many references were made to gut-strung instruments called Lautenwerke that resembled the harpsichord, but imitated the delicate, soft timbre of the lute, including its lower-sounding variants, the theorbo and chitarrone]. Unfortunately, there is little concrete information about these instruments. Not a single Lautenwerck has survived, nor is any contemporary depiction known, apart from a rough engraving from the early 16th century. Fewer than ten Lautenwerck makers are known by name, and only two or three of them left us reasonably detailed descriptions of their instruments. Nonetheless, the instrument is mentioned fairly frequently in music books of the early 17th to the mid-18th centuries.

Harpsichord, Andreas Ruckers (1646), remodeled and enlarged by Pascal Taskin (1780)


Dirck van Baburen, The Lute Player (1622; Centraal Museum, Utrecht)


Antiveduto Gramatica, The Theorbo Player (ca. 1615; Sabaudo Gallery, Turin)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s second cousin, Johann Nicolaus Bach, was a composer, organist, and instrument maker in the German city of Jena. He built several kinds of Lautenwercke. The basic type closely resembled a small wing-shaped, one-manual harpsichord of the usual kind (like our Lautenwerck). It only had a single stop, but this sounded a pair of strings tuned an octave apart in the lower third of the compass and in unison in the middle third, to approximate as far as possible the impression given by a lute. The instrument had no metal strings at all.

According to contemporary accounts, even this simplest of versions made a sound that could deceive a professional lutenist – a fact considered almost miraculous at the time. But a basic shortcoming was the absence of dynamic expression, and to remedy matters Johann Nicolaus Bach also made instruments with two and three manuals, whose keys sounded the same strings but with different quills and at different points of the string, thus providing two or three grades of dynamic and color. Furthermore, he built theorbo-harpsichords with a compass extending down an extra octave.

The interest of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Lautenwerck was considerable. He likely valued the combination of softness with strength that these instruments can produce, and he is known to have drawn up his own specifications for such an instrument to be made for him by the organ builder Zacharias Hildebrandt.

Johann Sebastian Bach

In an annotation to Jacob Adlung’s Musica mechanica organoedi (Musical Mechanics for the Organist, 1726; published in 1768) Johann Friedrich Agricola described a Lautenwerck that belonged to Bach:

The editor of these notes remembers having seen and heard a “Lautenclavicymbel” in Leipzig in about 1740, designed by Herr Johann Sebastian Bach and made by Herr Zacharias Hildebrandt, which was smaller in size than a normal harpsichord but in all other respects similar. It had two choirs [or sets] of gut strings, and a so-called little octave of brass strings. It is true that in its normal setting (that is, when only one stop was drawn) it sounded more like a theorbo than a lute. But if one drew the lute-stop (such as is found on a harpsichord) together with the cornet stop [perhaps an undamped 4’ brass stop], one could almost deceive professional lutenists.

The inventory of Bach’s possessions made at the time of his death reveals that he owned two such instruments, as well as three harpsichords, one lute, and a spinet.

The use of gut strings is of primary importance in a Lautenwerck. However, simple replacement of metal strings with gut will not give satisfactory results. The lower pitched strings of the Lautenwerck are thicker and under less tension. Thus Lautenwercke are often smaller than their metal-strung cousins. Extreme shortening of the strings, in comparison to the harpsichord, reduces the tension a Lautenwerck must bear. Lighter construction is thereby made possible, enabling a Lautenwerck to respond better to the less energetic gut string. This is especially true of the soundboard, which can be half the thickness normally found in harpsichords.

As gut strings have more internal friction than their metal counterparts, they generally sustain less. This allows one to dispense with dampers to a large degree. Individual instruments will dictate where dampers are needed (and how effective they need be), but one rarely finds Lautenwercke fitted with dampers on every string. Any resulting “over-ring” enhances the lute-like effect. (Our Lautenwerck has dampers from middle C on down.)

One final difference: Harpsichords normally have one jack per string. Lautenwercke often have more than one jack independently serving the same string. Tonal variation is achieved by plucking the string at different points along its length. That is the case with our Lautenwerck.

Our first two selections are Andrus Madsen playing an Adagio and a Fugue of his own composition on our Lautenwerck:


Next, let us listen to Kim Heindel playing the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat major, BWV 998, which J. S. Bach composed around 1735 for lute or harpsichord.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6NaUsWK0es (with scrolling music)

The Hungarian luthier Romanek Tihameìr has experimented with building a double-manual Lautenwerke with large lute-shaped cases. On one of his instruments Gergely Sárközy, who performs on guitar, lute, lute-harpsichord, viola bastarda, and organ, has recorded Bach’s Suites in E minor and C minor, BWV 996 and 997, as well as three chorales. Here is the E-minor Suite:

Romanek Tihamér at work on a Lautenwerck


Lautenwerck by Romanek Tihamér awaiting Strings


Romanek Tihamér, Two Theorbos and a Lautenwerck


Lute-shaped Lautenwerck, double-manual


Präludium–Passagio: Presto ¬– 2:36 Allemande – 5:26 Courante –
8:26 [Sarabande] – 13:41 Bourrée – 15:30 (Gigue)

For a highly nuanced interpretation of BWV 997, I would recommend the recording by the American harpsichordist Robert Hill, playing on a Lautenwerck built by his brother Keith Hill of Brentwood, Tennessee:

Praeludio – Fuga – Sarabande – Gigue – Double (a variation in the Gigue)

[Scroll down for program notes about the movements of this piece and the artist.]

Of this instrument Robert Hill writes,

It is a single manual instrument that has a special panel mechanism for moving the single 8′ set of jacks toward and away from the player, in imitation of what happens when a lutenist changes the position of his or her right hand from the middle of the string to plucking close to the nut, which changes the timbre from flutey to nasal, from dark to bright . . . however you want to call it. I also wanted to make the sound as much like a lute sound as possible. To me it sounds like a Lautenwerk should . . . very lute-like but clearly not a lute . . . cool sounding, yet neither cold nor dull, but spritely, sweetly singing, even though the gut strings are far more attenuated than the metal strings of a harpsichord. The sound sample below demonstrates how the timbre-changing pedal mechanism allows the color to be different on repeats without resorting to another keyboard to do the same thing.

(scroll about halfway down the page to ABOUT MY LAUTENWERKS,
and listen to the first sound sample)

For further exploration of the eight Lautenwercke that Hill has built, with illuminating sound samples, continue on down his webpage.

Memento Mori

By Mauricio Roman

With music we can express what we often have no words to say; early music has a particular and effective way at penetrating deep into human emotions, which is especially relevant at the difficult moments we live through. As we are now in Lententide, which in essence is a memento mori, I thought this would be a good topic for exploration.

For this topic, I found it best to start with lyrics that speak for themselves, and therefore we jump straight to the music: Passacaglia della Vita. This early 17th century madrigal is anonymous, but is sometimes attributed to Stefano Landi (1587-1639).

Listen to “Passacaglia della Vita”

Italian dialectEnglish
Oh come t’inganni

se pensi che gl’anni

non hann’ da finire,

bisogna morire.


È un sogno la vita

che par sì gradita,

è breve gioire,

bisogna morire.


Non val medicina,

non giova la China,

non si può guarire,

bisogna morire.


Non vaglion sberate,

minarie, bravate

che caglia l’ardire,

bisogna morire.


Dottrina che giova,

parola non trova

che plachi l’ardire,

bisogna morire.


Non si trova modo

di scoglier ‘sto nodo,

non val il fuggire,

bisogna morire.


Commun’è statuto,

non vale l’astuto

‘sto colpo schermire,

bisogna morire.


La morte crudele

a tutti è infedele,

ogn’uno svergogna,

morire bisogna.


È pur ò pazzia

o gran frenesia,

par dirsi menzogna,

morire bisogna.


Si more cantando,

si more sonando

la Cetra, o Sampogna,

morire bisogna.


Si muore danzando,

bevendo, mangiando;

con quella carogna

morire bisogna.


I Giovani, i putti

e gl’Huomini tutti

s’hann’a incenerire,

bisogna morire.


I sani, gl’infermi,

i bravi, gl’inermi

tutt’hann’a finire,

bisogna morire.


E quando che meno

ti pensi, nel seno

ti vien a finire,

bisogna morire.


Se tu non vi pensi

hai persi li sensi,

sei morto e puoi dire:

bisogna morire.

O how you deceive yourself

if you think your time

won’t come to an end,

we have to die.


Life is a dream

that seems so pleasing

but is briefly enjoyed,

we have to die.


Of no avail is medicine,

of no use is quinine,

we cannot be cured,

we have to die.


It’s no use ranting

and railing, the bravado

that stiffens courage,

we must die.


No guiding doctrine

finds the words

to allay our fears,

we have to die.


There’s no means

to untie this knot,

there’s no escape,

we must die.


It’s our common fate,

no cunning ploys

can fend it off,

we must die.


Cruel death

betrays us all,

shames each of us,

die we must.


It’s just lunatic

and frenetic

to tell lies about it,

die we must.


We die when singing,

we die when playing

the zither, the bagpipe,

die we must.


We die when dancing,

drinking and eating;

trapped in our bodies,

die we must.


Youngsters and toddlers

and all of humanity

are burnt to ashes,

we have to die.


The healthy, the sick,

the brave, the helpless,

all come to an end,

we have to die.


And when you are least

expecting it, you will

come to your end,

we have to die.


If it’s not on your mind,

you’ve lost your senses,

and are dead, so you can say:

we have to die.

According to Paul Archer, who translated this madrigal, early music “has the feeling of ‘pure music’, stripped back to its bones without the lushness of later sonorities…Similarly the lyrics that inspired this music had to have an immediate impact on listeners, with texts that seek to immediately transport the audience into a state of heightened emotion while evoking the rapture and vicissitudes of life and love.”

The music above was performed by L’Arpeggiata with tenor Marco Beasley. Having begun his career singing traditional Napolitan songs, Beasley is a master of the Recitar Cantando style — the Renaissance art of singing while acting.

Watch the performance at Versailles

In Beasley’s performance, I find that the video itself reinforces the message —  the way the musicians enter and leave the scene underscores the fragility and ephemerality of life. The contrast between fragility and permanence is starker when set against the background of stone architecture and sculptures.

Another performance of this song was the encore to the annual concert organized by the Venetian Center for Baroque Music in 2014 at the Palazzo da Mosto — a 13th century palace, the oldest in the Grand Canal, currently being renovated to become a luxury hotel.

Drawing of first floor windows of Ca’ da Mosto by Carlo Naya (1870)

The da Mosto family has lived in Venice for over 900 years. Francesco da Mosto, architect and documentary producer, lives with his family on an uninhabited island in Venice’s lagoon. With the support of his father Ranieri, the family patriarch who laments the death of the Republic of Venice and the mounting woes for its dwindling residents, the concert took place in a unique setting with chiaroscuro lighting and classical decorations.

Watch the performance in Venice (starts at 1:01:01)

The way the last candle goes out at the end of the presentation reinforced the theme of the Passacaglia della Vita.

This song and the choreography in both performances above are a memento mori  — a medieval and Renaissance concept reminding us, by way of different art forms, of the inevitability of death. It “reminds us from behind”, as shown by John of Kastav in his famous fresco.

This idea of being “reminded from behind” comes from Tertullian. In his Apologetics, he writes: “even in his triumph, as [the emperor] rides in that most exalted chariot, he is reminded that he is a man. It is whispered to him from behind: Look behind thee; remember thou art a man. That he is in such a blaze of glory that the reminder of his mortal state is necessary for him—makes it more delightful to him.”

The above performances of the Passacaglia della vita are a graceful — even delightful — way of reminding us of our own mortality. According to Marco Beasley, “the texts are a simple memento mori, presented with grace, a danse macabre entirely without darkness, inviting us to reflect deeply upon our existence. For in our daily dance of life, at a certain point we must yield to the lure of a pause of reflection, when we stop to ask ourselves if that which we are is that which we would have wished to be. It is in this moment, when we stop to think, that a new vital impulse often arises.”

Just as Lent follows carnival, this song reminds us that “life is a dance to which we are all invited, with neither masks nor costumes” (Beasley), which is why the Venice exposed through the above concert is wholly diverse from the familiar imagery of its carnival, which we depicted in an earlier article.

It does appear paradoxical that the song is called “della vita”, meaning “of life”, when the core theme is a reminder of our own mortality. According to Christian doctrine, death, while inevitable, is not necessarily the end state. The memento mori was then presented, and is still presented today, to motivate us to meditate on the last things in life, as Caravaggio depicted in his St. Jerome in Meditation.

St. Jerome in Meditation (1605) by Caravaggio (Museum of Montserrat)

The purpose of this meditation was to make good use of the available time in order to lead a virtuous life and attain, given God’s grace, the blessed state, depicted by many artists during the Renaissance, as shown in the left panel of The Last Judgment by Hans Memling.

The Last Judgment (c 1466-73) by Hans Memling (National Museum, Gdańsk)

The theme of the above painting reminds us of Michelangelo as well as Dante; we will be reviewing both — in their connection to music — in future articles.

“Passacaglia della Vita” videos:

Listen to “Passacaglia della Vita”
Watch the performance at Versailles
Watch the performance in Venice

Rediscovering Sacred Music in Spain

by Mauricio Roman

On February 27, we presented a great selection of works from Spain, beautifully rendered by Accademia del Piacere. One reason to focus on Spain is that many of its musical forms later influenced other composers — forms such as the pasacalle, chascona and follia. Spain also contributed interesting new instruments, such as the vihuela.

Notwithstanding this, there is also a need to explore sacred music from Spain. We can sense this by considering that, according to Jordi Savall, music needs to be performed in the right place. It would be strange to perform Gregorian chant in a theater, or an opera in a cathedral. Both profane and sacred music need to be rediscovered.

In his early youth, Jordi Savall belonged to a choir which sang, almost daily, Gregorian chant and polyphony as part of regular church services, along with villancicos and popular songs. His knowledge and love for music grew as part of this day to day experience. In Spain nowadays, this would be rare – the world in which Jordi Savall grew up needs to be rediscovered.

Here, I see three broad challenges. The first, and more urgent, is to recover and perform sacred music in any setting, so that its beauty can be appreciated. The second is to perform it in its proper architectural place so that the interplay between the music and the architecture, with its deep resonance and symbolic significance, can be experienced. The final challenge is restoring the sacred music tradition within the liturgy, with its pauses of silence, and the union of singing voices with the incense rising to the highest crevasses of a cathedral ceiling.

Sacred music encompasses the treasure trove of polyphony, which grew out of Gregorian chant in France and was further developed during the Renaissance.  Polyphony, according to an anecdote, was almost excluded from the Catholic church services at the Council of Trent, because it was thought that the multiple voices made the words difficult to understand – based on the idea that the word, or logos, has primacy over music.

The best Spanish composer in polyphony was Tomas Luis de Victoria, who we profiled in an earlier article. He was formed, musically, in Rome. To learn more about Tomas de Victoria, there is a wonderful BBC documentary, made in commemoration of the 400 years of his death: God’s Composer: Tomás Luis de Victoria (BBC, 2011)

Spain’s sacred music also involves Gregorian chant, which became the standard in western Christendom. Within Spain, the Gregorian liturgy was first adopted in Cataluña due to its close proximity to the Franks. As other Christian kingdoms in the peninsula reconquered territory from the Muslims, they gradually established this liturgy to foster unity with other parts of Europe.

Nowadays, Gregorian chant should be central in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church, Spain included, for according to its latest council, Gregorian chant is specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”

I learnt about this disposition in 2003 when taking a class with a bishop who had participated in Vatican II, dom Ivo Lorscheiter, of happy memory; when my wife and I married two years later in Costa Rica, we used Gregorian chant: the Missa de Angelis. The priest — an old Spaniard from Avila — shed a few tears in front of the altar at the moment when the Gloria began. The last time he had celebrated a liturgy with this music had been decades before.

One of the best recorded renditions of the Missa de Angelis is by the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis in Milan, with Giovanni Vianini.

Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis

The Missa de Angelis did not become known as such until late in its life, for it consists of a blend of mostly chants of Norman origin: a Kyrie from the 15th or 16th century in mode 5; a Sanctus from the 12th century, mode 6; and an Agnus from the 15th century, mode 6. The Gloria, from the 16th century, in mode 5, uses the same melody as that used in the Gloria and Sanctus for the Mozarabic rite in Toledo, with a different intonation.

Spain’s early sacred music tradition also includes Mozarabic chant (which means “among the arabs”), which evolved along with the local rite developed since the Visigothic era; its golden age was between the years of 589 and 711. While the Latin is clear and liturgical, its vocalization shows evidence of Arab influence.

Detail from the Antiphonary of Leon showing Mozarabic chant

The melody of Mozarabic chant was not written down in a way that can be transcribed: most of it was written in neumes with no pitches or intervals. We only have about twenty sources and the main one was preserved due to the care of a monk who jotted down a few hymns with the new musical notation of Gregorian chant.

Even before our current pandemic started, it was rare to find either Gregorian chant or polyphony at regular church services in Spain. The Mozarabic rite, and chant, was confined to a side chapel in Toledo’s cathedral plus a couple of other places. We hope that after this pandemic is over, the beautiful treasure of sacred music will be rediscovered and restored, especially in its liturgical context. The formation of new sacred music groups in Spain, of which there are now 14, such as the Schola Cantorum of Zamora, in 2019, is an encouraging sign.

Mozarabic Chant: Mass in Mozarabic chant according to the Mozarabic/Visigothic rite by the choir of monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, 1969
Gregorian Chant: Missa de Angelis
Tomás Luis de Victoria: O Magnum Mysterium

God’s Composer: Tomás Luis de Victoria (BBC, 2011)

Chopin’s Pianos

By George Bozarth
Co-Artistic Director, Musique du Jour Presents

Frédéric Chopin (1810–49) had at his disposal in Paris two very different types of grand piano, one by the firm of Ignace Joseph Pleyel (1757–1831) and his son Camille (1788–1855), the other by Pierre Érard (1794–1855).  When visiting London in 1848 Chopin had a large drawing room in which he lived in “piano heaven” — with instruments by both Pleyel and Érard, and one by Broadwood & Sons as well!  He is said to have remarked, “When I am feeling indisposed, I play on an Érard piano and I easily find in it a ready-made sound; but when I feel alive and strong enough to find my own sound, I need a Pleyel piano.”

Frédéric Chopin – Delacroix

On another occasion, Chopin remarked about Érard pianos: “It makes no difference whether you tap the keys lightly or strike them more forcefully: the sound is always beautiful and the ear asks for nothing more, for it is under the spell of the full, rich sound.”  As a contemporary Latvian pianist who played on Chopin’s Pleyel confided to his diary, “Until now I played more on resistant pianos than on easy pianos: this has greatly strengthened my fingers. However, on the resistant kind of piano, it is impossible to obtain the finer nuances of movement in the wrist and forearm, each finger moving in isolation.  I experienced this nuanced playing at the home of Chopin on his beautiful [Pleyel] piano with a touch so like that of the Viennese instruments. He calls it a ‘perfidious traitor.’ What came out perfectly on my solid and robust Érard became brusque and ugly on Chopin’s piano. He found it dangerous to use for too long an instrument with a beautiful sound, such as the Érard. He said that those instruments destroy the touch.”

Today, we shall explore performances on Pleyel grand pianos, including the one Chopin shipped to and played in England.  Next Sunday we shall experience his music on a piano by Érard.

The Austrian-born French composer/virtuoso pianist Ignace Joseph Pleyel, who in his youth had studied with Joseph Haydn, established his piano-manufacturing firm in Paris in 1807.  His biggest contribution to the development of the piano was the use of metal frames on which to string heavier wires, which led to increased volume in public halls, and at the same time resulted in more reliability in tuning.  In 1815, his son Camille — an outstanding and much respected virtuoso — joined Ignace as a business partner.

Ignaz Joseph Pleye

Camille Pleyel

In order to showcase the excellent instruments of Pleyel et Cie, a dedicated performance venue, the first official Salle Pleyel, opened in 1830.  It was merely a living room, a salon, seating 150 guests, but it hosted the greatest pianists of its day, including Frédéric Chopin in 1832 and Franz Liszt in 1833.  As Chopin wrote to his family, “Pleyel’s pianos are non plus ultra. The sound has a special satisfying quality, the upper register bright and silvery, the middle penetrating and intense, the bass clear and vigorous. The striking of the hammers has been designed to give a sound that is pure, clear, even, and intense.”  Camille Pleyel presented Chopin with the newest model of his piano model in 1839 (now in the National Museum of Warsaw), and in 1848 Chopin in return gave his last concert at the larger, 550-seat Salle Pleyel that had been built near the factory in 1839.

Salle Pleyel, 1839

Of the Pleyel piano compared to modern instruments, Marcel Lapointe, who restored an 1848 Pleyel, has written, “The sound is not as loud, the action lighter, and the keys smaller. The octave span is narrower, and the key dip is eight millimetres, compared to ten millimetres on a modern piano.  The biggest difference is the tone color.  On a modern piano the sound tends to be homogeneous, but on a Pleyel you have three distinct sections with distinctive tones, giving the pianist many different colors with which to work.”  The action is a refined version of the “single escapement” action first developed by John Broadwood in Londion.

Diagram of the action in an 1844 Pleyel piano

Here is Michele Boegner performing two of Frederic Chopin’s delicate Nocturnes (C# minor, op. posth. and No. 12 in G major, op. 37 no. 2) on an 1836 Pleyel piano:


(If you would like to listen to her play all twenty-one Nocturnes on this lovely instrument, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JM2CLm7WkxI)

Now that I’ve whetted your appetite for Chopin on the Pleyel piano, I’d like to turn you over for a while to the capable hands of piano collector extraordinaire Alex Cobb of Hatchland Park, Surrey, and the young Polish pianist Krzysztof Moskalewicz, who will perform for you a full fifty-four minute concert of Chopin’s music on the composer’s own 1848 Pleyel piano that he played on his visit to London that year.  You may listen to the entire concert or sample certain pieces:

Ballade in G minor, op. 23 (4:05)
Étude in C-sharp minor, op. 25 no. 7 (14:15)
Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op. 60 (composed and performed on this piano) (19:41)
Scherzo in C-sharp minor, op. 39 (28:59)
Waltz in A-flat major, op. 34 no. 1 (36:56)
Ballade in F minor, op. 52 (42:17)


Be sure to click on “SHOW MORE” for Alex Cobb’s program notes and a biography of the pianist.

You can see in the camera shots through the piano that in place above the strings is a wooden inner baffle, which is known variously as a Schalldeckel or Klangdeckel or “sound cover,” a “faux table d’harmonie” or “false soundboard,” or even a “dust cover.”  Yes, it does help to keep dust out of the piano, but its purpose was said to “modify the timbre and increase the volume by a small amount” (Claude Montal, L’ art d’accorder soimême son piano, 1836).  On this piano it seems to modify the tone by blending the low and tenor ranges.  (For an engaging twenty-minute discussion and “side-by-side” demonstration of the “false soundboard” on an 1820 Johann August Tischner fortepiano, built in St. Petersburg, see


With the “false soundboard,” the tone is clearly more refined.  An uninterrupted performance of this lovely Beethoven movement is available at


Concerning the potential pitfalls of using historical instruments some 100+ years old, David Arditti’s recent commentary is spot on:

One always wonders in cases like this how close the sound of the piano now is to how it sounded when it was new.  Unless a lot of parts have been replaced (in which case is it the same piano really?), lots of parts will have changed in ways that change the sound.  The wood of the soundboard and bridges will have changed their moisture content and mechanical properties, and this may well result in a less resonant sound than the piano originally had.  The strings will have corroded, also changing the sound. Then there’s the wear of the hammers and action.  To discover we’d have to make a new copy, and we still wouldn’t be sure, as we wouldn’t have exactly the same materials. Still, this was a very nice concert.

An ongoing — and at times heated — debate exists in the field of early music between the advocates of antique original instruments (and “To Restore or Not to Restore, | That is the Question”) vs. those who feel that only fine replicas can approach the sound of the pianos when they were new!  (Our approach with the historical instruments in our collection has been to restore them very carefully and with materials as close to the original ones  as possible.)

And then we have “The Question of Felt Hammers”: Evidence from well-preserved instruments point to Chopin’s Pleyels originally having hammers covered with a very soft grey felt, which, as Massimiliano di Mario observes, creates a tone “more ‘veiled’ in sonority than [Cobb’s Pleyel] piano. . . . The piano’s [felt] hammers only lasted a very few years before they wore through to the leather, so every year or two, everyone [needed to buy] a new piano” or at least have the hammers recovered or new ones installed.

The exquisite performance of the Nocturne in D-flat major, op. 27 no. 2, by Els Biesemans makes a strong case for felt-covered hammers.  The original felts on the hammers on that 1844 Pleyel are made of 90% extra fine wool fiber and 10% beaver. (Beaver-felt hats were the rage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In terms of performance practice, note how the pianist expressively plays the bass notes slightly ahead of the melodic notes, as was the style in Chopin’s time, but something modern pianists are taught not to do!

Beaver-felt Hats


By “subscribing” to di Mario’s YouTube site, one can enter a whole world of “soft grey felt” experiments and performances.

Well, there you see some of the issues “early music” performers face when venturing into the 19th century.