Baroque Concerts to Aim for Authenticity with Historical Instruments

Aviva Blonder

The Conservatory will be taking audiences back in time this Saturday with two faculty recitals that feature two instruments actually produced in Beethoven’s own period. In Kulas Recital Hall at 4:30 p.m., Marilyn McDonald, professor of Violin and professor of Baroque Violin, and David Breitman, professor of Piano, will be recreating Beethoven’s sonatas as concertgoers would have heard them at the time of composition. A second concert begins at 8 p.m. in Fairchild Chapel, where Webb Wiggins, professor of Harpsichord, will perform works composed by a range of German composers from the 1600s to 1700s on organ and harpsichord.

This weekend, the instruments themselves will be featured just as much as the performers. McDonald will be playing on a violin made in Corona, the home of Stradivarius, which, according to McDonald, “exists close to the way it was in Beethoven’s time.” The instrument has been painstakingly prepared for this performance; from the gut strings of the violin (most strings are now made out of synthetic cord) to the period-style bow used to play Beethoven’s masterpieces, it has been engineered to present the most historically accurate rendition of the sonatas possible.

Breitman said of his instrument, “Historical pianos are mostly played on modern copies. … Unusually, maybe for the very first time, I will be playing on an actual antique piano.” The instrument in question was made in Vienna in 1829; this Saturday will mark the second time it has been played in concert since its restoration. “People have taken for granted that modern instruments are perfect for this,” Breitman said, but in reality, modern pianos are much louder than their 18th century counterparts, and pianists often encounter issues of balance and volume when playing chamber music. Using an actual period piano equalizes the dynamic power between the instruments, creating an equal distribution of sound.

Wiggins began studying the organ at a young age and first encountered the harpsichord in his college years. Ultimately, he fell in love with the sound of the harpsichord, and attended the Oberlin Conservatory to study the instrument. “Being in Fairchild Chapel is a really wonderful experience,” said Wiggins. “In the evening it’s really neat with the [stained glass] windows; it’s an intimate place. … It’s a great time to hear organ and harpsichord.”

The 4:30 p.m. program features two Beethoven sonatas as part of a historical performance project to perform all 10 of the German master’s sonatas for violin and piano as they would have been performed in Beethoven’s era. Despite the Conservatory’s focus on German baroque (each semester the historical performance department focuses on either the French, Italian or German baroque period), Wiggins opted for more variety.

His recital begins with selections from Johann Jakob Froberger’s Libro Secundo, composed in 1649. This music reflects the composer’s international influences and displays traces of his travels to Vienna, Italy and France. Johann Sebastian Bach, however, the “main dude” of German baroque music as Wiggins described him, is not forgotten in this program. His heavy, impactful style is intercut with his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s “tiny little pieces” that have a much lighter air.

One of Wiggins’s biggest challenges in preparing for this recital was that “you have to cut pieces you really want to play,” so the final program was very carefully selected for the 8 p.m. concert and provides a diverse musical span of “three different periods of time and three different styles of writing.”

The musicians are all playing in their areas of expertise. McDonald and Breitman both have broad repertoires ranging from baroque to contemporary music, but they both specialize in historical performance on their respective instruments. This is the most important aspect of a historically authentic performance, yet it is extremely difficult to procure two such valuable historical instruments.

With all of their collective expertise and experience with historical performance, all three of Saturday’s performers agreed that teaching and playing at Oberlin was, as Breitman described it, an “illuminating” experience.

“Playing helps to enhance the teaching” and vice versa, according to Marilyn McDonald. Wiggins agreed his time at Oberlin was well spent, calling it “the best of what I do.”