BOSTON — `PLAYING a modern piano is like playing darts when you have an enormous target,'' says pianist and musicologist Steven Lubin. With a 19th-century fortepiano, on the other hand, ``the target is teeny.'' It's an instrument with a less easily malleable but a more characterful tone than today's piano, Mr. Lubin says, ``like a character in an opera.'' Lubin, a musician educated at Harvard and Juilliard, is founder of the Mozartean Players, a chamber group that specializes in period-instrument performances. He has also been active in reviving interest in the fortepiano, the bridge between the harpsichord and the modern concert grand.
But perhaps he is most widely known as the soloist for the first period-instrument recording of the Beethoven piano concerto cycle, with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music orchestra. Released a year ago on the Oiseau-Lyre label, that cycle reveals a new vision of Beethoven - one that is sparkling, alert, and athletic, yet penetrating in its exploration of darker themes as well.
Now the second period-instrument cycle of the Beethoven concertos is under way, with fortepianist Melvyn Tan and the London Classical Players, conducted by Roger Norrington. Their first album, featuring Concertos 1 and 2, has just been released on the EMI/Angel label (CDC 7-49509-2).
Meanwhile, as Hogwood and Norrington race to finish their respective period-instrument cycles of the Beethoven symphonies, their collective efforts are raising profound questions about how Beethoven should be performed and are already bringing some new approaches into the concert hall.
What makes the fortepiano appropriate for playing Beethoven?
At a time when the harpsichord was the traditional keyboard instrument, both Mozart and Beethoven ``made a beeline'' for the subtler fortepiano, said Lubin, reached by phone in New York, ``because it represented a gentler, much less self-important aesthetic, going back to nature..., the Rousseau idea.''
Each note played on the fortepiano resounds sharply but then dies away rapidly. Contrasts are, therefore, well differentiated, and clarity is enhanced. The sound may be softer than on a modern piano, but its focused impact makes it equally impressive when well balanced with orchestra and hall.
``The aesthetic of the smooth, continuous sound ... is something we're very used to,'' Lubin continues. ``It's the product of a modern technology. ... [But] in some ways the modern piano evens out a lot of expressivity that is there to be had on gentler pianos.''
Lubin used four fortepianos for the five Beethoven concertos, instruments that match developments that occurred during the composer's career: an extra octave added in several steps to the five-octave instrument with which he began, and a third string added for many of the keys, which tripled the tension on the frame and doubled the weight of the piano.
THE most striking impression in hearing the fortepianos on recordings, especially the earlier ones, is their rapid-fire sound, lacking the smooth, sustained tones of the modern concert grand.
The aesthetic of Hogwood's early-instrument orchestra matches that of the pre-1850 pianos. Hogwood notes that ``we have inherited a late 19th-century style of playing, [which] certainly depends on the expressiveness of rich string sound,'' a factor that wasn't true of instruments in Beethoven's day. Hogwood's string section, in contrast, has a lean but resilient sound, with an emphasis on tightness of playing and agility of attack.
In this century, Hogwood adds, we have seen ``very homogeneous wind groups.'' But in Hogwood's ensemble, each instrumental voice can be heard and takes on its own character when matched against the piano.
This is especially noticeable with the woodwinds. It is the impression of a ``collection of individuals rising to the top,'' then blending in again - ``that changing surface color'' - which gives interest to the wind playing, Hogwood says.
For the B-flat piano concerto (Beethoven's earliest, even though it is known as his Second Piano Concerto), Lubin plays an Anton Walter reproduction of the kind Beethoven was known to have used in the 1790s. It has a bright sound without much variety in volume.
Lubin, nonetheless, proves adept at drawing contrasts and building them in varied and interesting ways. He often decisively marks points of emphasis, then backs away with disarming gentleness. As each note of every trill is individually heard and is endowed with its own character, Beethoven's least mature piano concerto takes on a new vitality.
Melvyn Tan's recording of this concerto also gives pleasure, though his reading, at least for this listener, lacks Lubin's special insight or imagination.
The fourth concerto in the Lubin/Hogwood cycle is the most successful, in the view of this writer. The opening winds set a mournful, yet hopeful tone of devastating beauty. The strings are warm but never schmaltzy.
Lubin admits he broke with the strict requirements of authenticity in playing a replica of an 1824 Graf piano from a decade or so after the premi`ere of the work because, for the ``ethereal subtleties of the fourth concerto, I couldn't see myself playing a piano with hard-edged hammers.'' To judge from the intense lyricism he draws from the instrument while maintaining a cleaner-cut tone than one expects from a modern Steinway, it was a good choice.
Do the success of Lubin's venture and the excitement surrounding the Tan/Norrington cycle mean that pianists will turn to the fortepiano en masse? Not likely, according to a number of concert artists contacted for this article. For one thing, the culture and training of today's musicians cannot be swept aside.``Like it or not,'' says pianist Emmanuel Ax, ``my generation was brought up to think of the piano as a singing instrument, and it's much easier to sing on a Steinway.''
Pianist Jeffrey Kahane says, ``I'm fascinated by the prospect of, at some point, playing Beethoven on a good fortepiano, because there are certain textural aspects of these works that are really much better served by the earlier instruments, [but] I confess that the reverse is also true. ... Beethoven was always straining at the limits of the instrument. One has the sense that nothing is big enough.''
Mr. Kahane praises a performance he heard John Gibbons give on the fortepiano, saying it was ``absolutely a revelation hearing the layers of varnish stripped away.'' But Mr. Ax comments, ``If you eliminate all the grime from Rembrandt paintings, you will come up with a different color than Rembrandt created.''
There is no one ``authentic'' interpretation a performer can give, he says, adding: ``I don't think we're bound to see Beethoven as his contemporaries saw him. It would be very limiting, like getting rid of all the history between then and now.''
No one doubts, though, that period-instrument performances are indeed influencing how Beethoven is performed on modern instruments: ``Knowing how period instruments play Beethoven has changed my view of playing Beethoven,'' says David Zinman, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
KAHANE also welcomes the dimension given by the new recordings. ``I used to think Beethoven on the fortepiano was really absurd; more and more I think that there's something to be gained and learned from this music on earlier instruments, even if one doesn't play it oneself....
``I can't imagine playing Bach on the piano without having had the aural and tactile experience of playing Bach on the harpsichord. And I think, to a certain extent, that's true of Beethoven too.''
Malcolm Frager, though an advocate of the fortepiano, says the instrument should not be the main emphasis: ``You can do it on a washtub or a honky-tonk piano. It's not the instrument that counts as much as what you have to say musically.''
Russell Sherman goes further: ``These forms and images [which fortepianos evoke] I believe are entirely reproducible on a modern piano,'' if attitudes to performance change to accommodate them. When Bach is played on the piano, he says, the music tends to ``cave in to ... the nature of the modern piano to corral all meaning in a harmonious glob,'' but it doesn't have to. Glenn Gould could ``make the instrument come alive, make it whistle, make it dance.''
Emmanuel Ax adds a final twist, confirming that the importance of period-instrument recordings of Beethoven is not that they reveal a particular way of playing Beethoven, but that they open up a plurality of paths to the composer, each casting him in a new and more revealing light.
``I'm a complete enthusiast of the [period-instrument] London Classical Players and Roger Norrington,'' Ax says. ``What I would like to do is play with the Classical Players on my piano. ... I'm hoping that we will see that Beethoven is an even greater figure than we had imagined, because we will be able to see more sides of him. We'll be able to see that he meant something specific to his contemporaries and that he means something eternal to us.''