Interview about McNulty fortepianos with Viviana Sofronitsky In Slovak and English

Interview about McNulty fortepianos with Viviana Sofronitsky

“Hudobny Zivot” (Musical life journal) Bratislava March 2009

In English

Your father is among the connoisseurs recognized as the one of the most influential Russian pianistic legends. But he is still not so generally known as for example Richter or Gilels. Why was his artistic career different?

It happened for various reasons: one that my father never traveled outside the Soviet Union except for a trip to France in 1928 and a command performance for the leaders at the Potsdam conference in 1945 (Stalin, upon learning that Truman’s daughter would perform at the conference, ordered VS to be flown immediately to Potsdam). VS’s reclusive personality played a part in masking his fame– he didn’t tour even in Russia, performing only in Moscow (where he lived after 1942) and in Leningrad, where he was born and his sisters were living. He was all about music and ill-suited to everyday life – one good example is that, when he toured Russia alone in his younger period, he forgot his concert suit somewhere; Prokofiev, always the practical man, had it found and returned. In his later years (at least after he moved to Moscow) he never left the house unless accompanied either by my mother or a trusted friend. In contrast to his huge performing repertoire, comparatively little was recorded – not only because recording techniques were not yet well-developed, but also because he hated the whole process of studio recording as opposed to spontaneous live performance (he called his recordings “my corpses”).

His live performances were always different – H. Neuhaus said “Going to a Sofronitsky concert is the same as going on a blind date. You never know what to expect, but it is always exciting.”

Let´s say that the so called russian school of piano playing, as we used to know it, has almost nothing in common with HIP – or more generally is also significantly different to the „western tradition“. However, how the artistic surroundings of your home influenced your art of playing?

First of all it was more than 20 years ago that I left Russia, although even before then my focus was on Early music. It started from my early years when I found myself excited about Bach fugues while most of my classmates were focused on Rachmaninov and considered Bach works a dry but necessary adjunct to the study program. The “main stream” was focused on modern piano performance, and mostly late-Romantic at that, while performances of Renaissance, Baroque and 20century music were not in the school curriculum, but rather considered to be something alternative, even “dissident.” Conventional music education was totally focused on performances on modern piano, and, although Moscow Conservatory, where I studied, gave the possibility to receive organist/harpsichord qualifications, it was allowed only as a second degree, as long as the student kept modern piano as a main subject. The entrance exam for harpsichord and organ players didn’t exist and they had to compete for entrance playing together with pianists the usual piano program, which, among other pieces, included 2 Chopin studies. Now I am grateful for this, as the solid pianistic training helps on hammerklavier when I explore Chopin.

Where and when did you get in touch with HIP and fortepianos? Was it something as the love at the first sight?

It was a bit different with HIP and fortepianos. HIP, as such, started in Russia quite early. ‘Madrigal,’ the ensemble of Renaissance music created by Andrei Volkonsky in the late 50s, continues to perform today. Their development was of course much more difficult – while western musicians had a comparative wealth of libraries and music instruments, Russian early music enthusiasts had to limit themselves mainly to blockflutes, a few not very high quality violas, East German harpsichords, and singers. Still, these performances were extremely impressive, and the few recordings coming to Russia from the West were influential. With fortepiano it was different. There were a few non-functioning originals in museums, but I am sorry to admit that I lacked the imagination to realize how they might have sounded when they were new. I think the musical soul requires seduction, and when the instrument is so unattractive, well…. It was not until I had seen a fortepiano at Oberlin College, US, where it had been brought by Professor Penelope Crawford, in the late’80’s, that I first heard the fortepiano, in a program of Mozart piano trios. I was astonished – the sound of piano fitted so perfectly to the sound of the strings that it answered the nagging question why Mozart would write pieces for instruments so different in their sound qualities. When I tried it after the concert I had the feeling of extreme ease at playing it – it fitted perfectly between harpsichord technique, which I had studied for many years, but which never seemed totally native to me, and the piano, which I had had to learn from early childhood until my graduation from Moscow Conservatory…

Let´s omitt now thorough description of technical differences between fortepiano and modern piano, how would you characterize the most important differences for the players and for the listeners?

To give a short answer, the fortepiano (and each type of fortepiano) is simply a different instrument. As for the longer answer, when a composer gets a musical image/impression, he “conserves” it for us by encoding it in black dots on a piece of paper. When performer gets this code, he is looking into his heart trying to understand the idea/image of the piece and, if he is blessed with this understanding, to convey it to us in the form of live performance. He does this with help from his instrument, which is best when it fits the original purpose. When musician has to use a instrument badly suited to the task, it is as difficult as for a dancer to perform classical ballet wearing army boots. With high skill a charming illusion might be possible, but most probably still not giving the same natural results as simply wearing army boots for The Long March and ballet slippers for Cinderella. Some musical works might not lose much ground (someone told that Bach sounds great on balalaikas, and the organist Anthony Newman suggests tuned bathtubs would work equally well), but homophonic keyboard works from the Rococo to the present depend upon their specific available instruments, mostly pianos, for a just interpretation. Using the proper instrument is easier for the performer and gives a fuller image, a specific meaning, to the listener.

It´s not long time ago since you recorded all Mozart piano concertos on fortepiano. What kind of experience was it, let´s say comparing playing Mozart on modern pianos?

Playing fortepiano is just so much more effective! When I hear performances on modern piano, I can hear that most musicians intuitively or purposively are trying to do the same with music material that I was trying to do on my fortepiano. Still, the modern piano is an instrument with much fuller overtones, which gives danger of the material becoming too heavy, which is almost impossible to avoid without your sounding too careful, which makes the music sound cloyingly sweet and miniature in conception. Another big problem is that of balance with the orchestra, as the modern piano has a much different timbre to the strings and woodwinds.

It can be said that you as a musician are partly involved in the process of creating McNulty instruments. Could you describe their exceptional features – why they are very popular among the players?

The main reason, again, is that they are very good instruments. Any piano, any design, depends upon the technician to realize its potential. While other fortepiano builders may or may not share the limited internal data available for Walter, Stein, Graf and Pleyel, all builders must exercise their craft with skill and perception, which I believe is what sets McNulty apart. His instruments are perfect, sensitive tools which allow the artist to bring forward all small details which they find in music work. They are also very good looking – Paul puts great care in every small detail such as choice of veneer and polish. But I don’t really know anyone who would buy a piano because of its good looks. It comes rather as a bonus – the same way as design of multi mega pixel camera or powerful computer.

Last time I visited Divišov, Paul was preparing copy of Stein fortepiano, can you tell something more about this instrument? Can we hear this fortepiano on some recordings?

Every time when Paul makes new instrument and especially when he is making first copy of some model, I have a feeling of expectation for the new discovery. What I discover is that Stein piano is perfect for early Mozart and CPE Bach. It is just amazing how clear is the division in Mozart’s works – while early opuses sound much better on Stein, his later music doesn’t sound good on this instrument: Stein has more light “girlish voice” color which sounds “too naïve” in later works. (a bit the same as using 14-year-old to play the role of Medea or lady Macbeth). Early works sound much better on Stein– although I should admit that some pieces (for example D major sonata with finale “alla turka” I didn’t truly understand before – but with Stein piano it is coming by itself! Each variation has definite exciting character and because so many different contracts the slower pace of the piece makes just perfect sense. The sound of Stein is bright with brisk attack and very sweet in cantilena. It is also very good for CPE Bach which makes me wonder how much is in common between Silbermann fortepianos used in Potsdam where CPE Bach was working and Stein instruments (who was an apprentice with one of Silbermann relative). I am now planning to record on this piano and Ronald Brautiham had already recorded a Beethoven disc which is going to be released in his “compete beethoven piano works” on BIS.

What is good and different for the Graf piano? Are there recordings on this instrument?

The Graf piano we are bringing to Bratislava is a copy of instrument from 1819 which belongs to the National Museum in Praha and is held in Zamek Kozel near Plzen. This is an early instrument which is still very similar to the classical Viennese fortepiano (Graf rapidly change his model in his middle period). This instrument has given me the greatest discovery of Schubert. The colors which it is able to produce don’t exist on the modern piano. As an early fortepiano, Graf still has a moderator pedal, also a true una chorda (the “una chorda” on the modern piano is in reality only “due chorde.”). It is just amazing how perfectly these colors fit to Schubert’s music! What is interesting is that although I am using lots of moderator pedal for Schubert, I was not able to find any moment, so far, to use it in Chopin’s works. It just seems to be wrong and “doesn’t fit”. It is quite interesting, as Chopin himself, who considered Graf to be the best Viennese maker, was puzzled with so many pedals on Graf piano. On the piano which he preferred in his later years – Pleyel – moderator doesn’t exist. This is the moment when I feel “Eureka!” as I feel myself on the right track. There are 2 recordings issued on this piano – one is BIS Beethoven vol 6 with Ronald Brautigam and another my Mendelssohn’s all cello works on Passacaglia recorded with Sergei Istomin, which got superb reviews and with which, most important, I am also very happy.

What is the next model Paul will be making?

The next model is a Pleyel, the favorite piano of Chopin. When Chopin came to Paris he first encountered this instrument, which he rated as “Nec plus ultra.” He later claimed that when he had a good day, he always preferred Pleyel, as although it is more difficult to play, it gives more delicate results, while on a “bad day’ he preferred Erard, which is easier to play, but with slightly less interesting results. For me, as a musician, it is a time of great anticipation: I can see the piano “growing” – every time when I come to workshop I can see a little bit more – by now it has already corpus with pinblock, which looks most beautiful, but not yet playing. One never can be sure – but I am expecting a lot – it might be that one year from now we all will know much more how the “real Chopin” was sounding… but now it is only time to wait!

Could you shortly introduce instruments and repertoire you are bringing with to Bratislava?

I am going to play a concert on all 3 pianos: Stein, Walter and Graf. It is not easy, as these are basically different instruments, which require different touch and attitude from performer. Still I want to do it to give the listeners the possibility to witness “the experiment” – the same performer playing in the same acoustic and only instruments are different. The program itself comprises pieces best characterizing each piano – CPE Bach for Stein, Mozart and Beethoven for Walter, Schubert and early Chopin for Graf. There will be also a special part at the end of concert where I will be playing same excerpt of music on different instruments giving listener the opportunity to hear how the music piece is changing depending on the instrument it performed. Paul will shortly explain the difference in mechanical construction and we both answer the questions. There will be also a possibility for musicians to try pianos for themselves.

Although you have never been here it´s the second visit of Paul McNulty in Bratislava. Since then we have one his instruments here. How is the situation in surrounding countries – Czech, Poland, Hungary?

I would say that the situation in this countries the most welcoming. I am very pleased and almost surprised with openness which I meet in these countries. The main reason for this, I think, is that there are so many pianists of high caliber because the general level of piano education is very strong. They can instantly appreciate the new possibility they receive with fortepianos and their technical ability allows them easily to modify their technique so they can adjust themselves without big problem. Another reason I think is that they didn’t encounter so many bad fortepiano copies which were produced in early years of HIP movement, so their interest to the “new instrument” is not yet hindered by bad experience “oh, I had already heard a fortepiano and it was awful.” When some artist is renting a piano for a concert, it is most often that after this we are approached with request about information on buying instrument. There is one more interesting trend – when organization is able to afford financially, they are now asking 3 fortepiano models “as a pack”, as they realize that one fortepiano is simply not enough. There are at the moment several fortepianos in these countries: Graf with Brno music Academy, Graf with Chopin institute in Warsaw (widely used for concerts and recordings), Walter with Warsaw Chamber Opera (world biggest Mozart’s festival”), which is had already ordered a Pleyel. There are several instruments with private musicians in all these countries, including Walter and Sohn copy with Petr Gulas in Bratislava. We have constant requests for information, also for concerts and demonstrations, which we most happy to do because we love to share what we love the most!


fortepiano s.r.o. implements a project co-financed by the European Union.
Number of project: CZ.01.2.111/0.0/0.0/18_244/0016789