On these recordings, works by Schumann, Mahler, and Krill, composed between 1842 and 1878, are performed on two original Erard grand pianos, built in 1840 and 1863. These were the most modern pianos of their time, instruments ‘par excellence’ for the great romantic virtuosos. Founder of the company was Sébastien Erard, son of an Alsatian carpenter. In 1768 he moved from Strasbourg to Paris, to learn how to build harpsichords. Together with his brother Jean Baptiste he opened the firm ‘Erard Frères’ and soon started to manufacture pianos. At that time, there were two important schools in piano construction; the Viennese and the English, which were different not only in technical aspects but also in sound quality. The English instruments sounded full, with a singing tone, but were not very brilliant and quite heavy to play. The Viennese pianos had a lighter action producing an articulated, clear sound, which was also rather thin. In Paris, at the end of the eighteenth century, pianos were constructed according to the English model, and so did Erard. When the French Revolution broke out, Erard transferred his business to London, but he returned to Paris in 1795. The London branch however stayed in business until 1890. Initially, Erard build pianos according to the English principle, but once he returned to Paris, Sébastien started to make changes in the construction of his pianos. He didn’t like the heavy touch, nor the rather stuffy sound of the treble. So he started to look for ways to come to a synthesis between the Viennese and English concepts.
At first, Erard experimented with a number of new actions, until in 1821 he patented his ‘mécanisme à double échappement’. This revolutionary new type of action became the standard used in all modern pianos to this very day. It had the advantage above English and Viennese actions by allowing the hammer to strike again, even though the key hadn’t fully returned to its original position. This made it possible to produce fast tone repetitions. At the same time, Erard made improvements to the sound board so that the sound became more brilliant as compared to the English pianos.
By 1830, Erard had become the most famous and innovative piano manufacturer in Europe. The instrument perfectly suited the musical and technical demands of the upcoming, new generation of romantic virtuosos. Numerous great pianists like Liszt, Alkan, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, and many others preferred the grand pianos of Erard.
But gradually, during the nineteenth century, the company moved from being innovative to being conservative. This became evident during the Paris World Exhibition of 1867, where, although Erard was awarded with yet another golden ‘médaille d’honneur’, all attention went to the new, ‘overstrung’ pianos by Steinway with their massive, cast iron frames. With all earlier pianos, the strings overlap diagonally; Steinway’s patent placed the bass strings above the treble strings in a cross shape, allowing for greater tension and thus producing a stronger sound. This type of piano construction has become the standard for modern pianos.
After Steinway’s triumph in Paris, virtually all European piano manufacturers started to construct pianos according to the new, ‘American’, system. In the next decades, of all the great manufacturers only Erard stuck to the old way of making parallel strung pianos. The fact that Erard was surpassed in success by Steinway was a bitter pill to swallow for the French. This disappointment was voiced by a well-known visitor of the World Exhibitions and author of a book on musical instruments, count Adolphe de Pontécoulant. ‘Oh, Pierre Erard, where are you?’, he wrote, pointing at the progressiveness of the former director. Interestingly enough, De Pontécoulant didn’t think that Erard should also start to make overstrung pianos. On the contrary, he found overstrung pianos ‘the biggest mistake in piano manufacturing’, stating that ‘the quality of pianos had declined’ because of it.
In recent years, parallel strung pianos can be heard again on cd’s and in concerts, and one can say that De Pontécoulant was right in many ways. For instance, parallel strung pianos sound much clearer in the bass then modern pianos. This has to do with the way the strings transmit the sound to the sound board. If one plays a chord in the bass register on an Erard, all the different tones can be very well discerned. This is much harder to do on a modern instrument, which produces a muddy, undefined sound in this register.
For a long time, the French did not follow the fashion of manufacturing overstrung pianos, but in 1895 Erard finally made its first overstrung piano. It proved to be too late; Steinway and some German brands dominated the market by now. In the twentieth century, Erard went further downhill.
The pianos nowadays manufactured by Erard have very little in common with the instruments from the nineteenth century. These accumulated dust in chateaux or were just rotting away in barns in the French countryside. In recent years some piano specialists, like the Amsterdam pioneer Frits Janmaat who restored the pianos heard on this cd, have brought back to life the old Erard grand pianos by carefully bringing them in playing order. Thanks to these efforts the beautiful sound of the magnificent nineteenth century pianos is being rediscovered by pianists and audiences. The clarity and freshness of these parallel strung pianos, the quickness of its sound and the beautiful differences of the various registers fit the music of romantic composers very well.
Playing an Erard puts different demands on a pianist than playing on a Steinway or Yamaha, like driving a Ferrari is different from driving a Rolls Royce. Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), one of the last great pianists that gave concerts on Erards, wrote in his memoirs: ‘The tone quality of an Erard may not be as beautiful and pleases the ear less, because it is too clear; this reflects the character of the French.. The tone has precision, clearness, elegance and technical perfection, and it requires a real Erard Master to let an Erard sing.’
In chamber music an Erard is a very good partner, because each sound can be heard clearly without overpowering the other instruments. Especially in a composition like Schumann’s Piano Quartet from 1842, it is very fitting to use an Erard from the same time. Even though Robert Schumann and his wife Clara never owned an Erard, they knew and liked the sound and touch of these instruments. This can be established by the fact that in 1853, Robert bought as a gift to his wife for their thirteenth wedding anniversary, an instrument by Johannes Bernhard Klems from Düsseldorf. This instrument was virtually identical to an Erard; in 1851 Klems had brought one of his pianos ‘nach Bauart Erard’ (‘constructed after Erard’) to the London World Exhibition.