Behind the Scenes: Dans un salon de la Nouvelle Athènes

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In June 2019, the Nouvelle Athènes Association launched 12 mini-concerts, as well as a three-concert series focused on the figure of Liszt, at the Petit Palais as part of the temporal exposition “PARIS ROMANTIQUE (1815-1848)”.

Some excerpts of these concerts were published by the label Son An Ero in January 2020 in the form of a CD. The instruments used were a Streicher fortepiano (1847) and an Erard fortepiano (1838) respectively. I had the privilege to be invited to take part in this last wonderful cycle, and thus my performances were included in the disc. As it is not often that a performer has the opportunity to present the work “behind the scenes” of a new disc in a magazine, this task being usually delegated to critics, I decided to take the kind invitation of the director of Parter, Cihan Barut, as an opportunity to show here the artistic process and aesthetics of the work behind my performances presented in this record.

La Nouvelle Athènes: A Romantic Association Letter of George Sand to Franz Liszt is included in the first disc of La Nouvelle Athènes Association  almost as a “motto” of the spirit and intentions behind the creation of this association based in Paris and consecrated to the Romantic piano. “La Nouvelle Athènes” was the name of a quartier in the 9th “arrondisement” in Paris, given by the journalist Adolphe Dureau de la Malle in 1823. Inspired by the Greek culture and taste, architects constructed between 1820 and 1860 the magnificent hotels and buildings which hosted for years this “new république des arts et des lettres”.

Happy friends; the art to which you have given yourselves up is a noble and happy vocation, and mine is but arid and vexatious labour after yours. Silence and solitude are absolutely necessary for my work, whilst a musician exists in harmony, sympathy, and union, with his pupils and his performers. Music can teach and reveal itself, can spread and communicate its own beauty. Does not the harmony of sounds induce that of will and feeling? What a grand republic might be formed by a hundred instrumentalists all united by the same spirit of love and order, to execute the symphony of a great master! (…) Yes, music is prayer, is faith, is friendship, is association, par excellence

Georg Sand / Franz Liszt, July 1835

Named after the this Romantic centre for Parisian intellectuals of the 19th century, “the members [of this association] aim at bringing to light new re-readings of the Romantic repertoire, stimulated by playing on period pianos and the reconstruction of the Romantic aesthetics supported by the study of written testimonies and by listening to the first recordings of the followers of Chopin, Liszt and Clara Schumann. They reconnect us to the sources of the Romantic piano.”  They have organized concerts, masterclasses and conferences in very prestigious venues in Paris, such as the Salle Cortot, the Théatre Bouffes du Nord, the Reid Hall or the Conservatoire Régional at the Rue de Madrid.

As a result of a collaboration with the French label Son An Ero, the Association published their first recording, as a musical presentation, in January 2020: “Dans un salon de la Nouvelle Athènes” .

This live-recorded CD includes some of the performances that took place in June 2019 at the Petit Palais as part of the “Paris romantique” exhibition.

The concerts, as well as the record, intended to recreate what would have been the atmosphere at thos Parisian salons, “where the musical, literary and artistic elite would mix with the aristocratic and financial circles at the residences of George Sand, Camille Pleyel or the Erards, at the houses of the Princesses Czartoryska, Belgiojoso or the Countess Marie d’Adoult, that of Zimmermann, Professor at the Conservatory, at the Tuileries with the royal family, at embassies, at bankers’.” 

Thus, the chosen concert programs were inspired by this way of music making: virtuoso fantasies and paraphrases, chamber music arrangements, which were so much in vogue at the time, combinations of solo piano, vocal and chamber music, all in one same recital.

The series organized at the Petit Palais proposed two types of concerts: twelve mini-concerts, which took place at the Romantic hall , performed on a beautiful original Viennese fortepiano, built in 1847 by Johann Baptist Streicher (Nr. 4032), and restored by Edwin Beunk and acquired by LNA , as well as three concerts focused on the figure of Liszt, on his contemporaries and other figures who influenced his music, played on the magnificent Erard 1838 (Nr. 14231), restored and owned by the collector Pier Paolo Dattrino. 

The recording, which includes excerpts of these three last ones, features the artists Edoardo Torbianelli, Olga Pashchenko and myself for the fortepiano solos, as well as the Ensemble Lélio (Benjamin D’Anfray, fortepiano; Jeanne Mendoche, soprano; Roberta Cristini, clarinet; Lucie Arnal, cello), and it presents pieces by Carl Czerny, Carl Maria von Weber, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, Adolphe Adam, Frédéric Chopin and, of course, Franz Liszt.

Off the record: The artistic process of recording Czerny and Chopin

Since my field of specialization during the last years was Robert Schumann’s and Frédéric Chopin’s production, and not considering myself a very lisztian pianist, for this CD I chose to explore the intimacy of expression which was also possible in these small music salons , in contrast to the very virtuosic music that my colleagues proposed, which could also be associated with the larger venues of public concerts.

Thus, I chose four miniature pieces which might seem somehow simple at first sight but demand a profound knowledge of the Romantic style of playing: to find poetry in the simplicity through the most inner expression of feelings.

In these recordings, I presented a surprisingly very lyrical facette of Carl Czerny, to whom sheer and mechanic virtuosity is often attributed, together with Chopin, who was considered for many “the Poet of the Piano”.

Under Chopin’s hands the piano needed to envy neither the violin for its bow nor wind instruments for their living breath. The tones melted into one another as wonderfully as in the most beautiful singing […] The tone he could draw from the instrument, especially in cantabile, was immense[riesengross]; in this regard John Field alone could be compared with him

Carl Mikuli

The Erard Piano

Harpsichord-shaped and made of mahogany wood, this Erard piano presents a double escapement mechanism, with leather and felt hammers.

Its keyboard extension is of 6 and a half C-F octaves, and it was the first model incorporated with a brass Capo d’astro bar. Interestingly, this instrument was purchased in the same 1838 by M. Blutel, the customs inspector in La Rochelle.

Liszt was an Erard-sponsored artist, and therefore this instrument fitted perfectly well to our Lisztian concert series. As Luca Montebugnoli explains in the booklet of the disc: “Performing Romantic pieces on this original 1838 piano means not only reviving this music in all its various colours and accents, but also rediscovering the experimental spirit of these pioneers of piano virtuosity. […] As they explored the technical and expressive resources of the piano, which at the time kept evolving, they were able to create unprecedented languages and sounds worlds; which means for today’s performer embodying the various “pianisms” of these great virtuosos of the past, with all their peculiarities (keyboard approach, gesture, tone…).”

When playing his own compositions, Chopin liked here and there to add ornamental variants. Mikuli told me he had a particular predilection for doing this in the Mazurkas

Raoul Koczalski


What magic! It was incredibly beautiful. His playing was entirely based on the vocal style of Rubini, Malibran, Grisi, etc.—he himself said so. But it was with a truly pianistic voice that he strove to render each of those artists’ particular mannerisms: by no means achieved in detriment of the piano playing itself.

Those were the words of Emilie von Gretsch, describing Chopin playing four nocturns for her. Even nowadays, the golden age of bel canto long gone, it is not uncommon to hear piano teachers urging their students to play in a singing manner. “One should sing with the fingers!” insisted Chopin tirelessly to his pupils.

To sing, yes, but how? Because the aesthetics of singing have obviously evolved and were violently disrupted by the two World Wars, the styles of singing and declamation from the first half of the 19th century have become somewhat concealed. Comparing the modern manner of singing 19th-century repertoire with both the earliest known recordings as well as descriptions in written sources of the time, one could conclude that the modern approach to this repertoire would probably sound very unfamiliar to singers of the past.

In order to get acquainted with Chopin’s aesthetics and to record his Prélude in F-sharp Major Op. 28 Nr. 13 , of obvious vocal inspiration, I immersed myself in the reading of historical descriptions of his playing, as well as in the listening of the recordings of the pupils of his student Karol Mikuli and of the first recordings of bel canto singers.

Analysing these recordings in detail and imitating their gestures, breathing, portamenti, legato, rubato and colours was a fascinating task that unveiled many specificities of their playing and singing which are difficult to notice without close listening; I deeply recommend this study to any instrumentalist or singer who would like a better and more profound understanding of the Romantic aesthetics of performance.


Interestingly, when listening to these recordings with the score, one discovers many un-notated fiorituras, both in voice and piano recordings. Two very representative examples are the recordings of Adelina Patti of Bellini’s “Non credea mirarti” and of Raoul Koczalski of the Nocturne Opus 9 Nr. 2 in E-flat Major.

Not all of these variations were ex-tempore improvisations, there were also some written variations passed in the Chopin tradition , and thus it is possible to read on the disc by Koczalski “Mit authentischen Verzierungen von Chopin”  (“With original ornamentations by Chopin”).

Carl Czerny has unluckily come to our days as being the torture of young pianists with his endless corpus of Etudes. Nevertheless, he was prolific in many other genres, also including Nocturnes of Italian bel canto inspiration, which were also popular in German-speaking countries. 

As part of my Master studies in Basel, together with my Improvisation teacher, we decided that I would consecrate some months to the study of improvised ornamentation in Nocturnes, and thus, I carefully analysed the written variations and figurations of Chopin’s Nocturnes reprises and tried to implement them to different Field Nocturnes, as well as to the A-flat Major “Nocturne Sentimental” attributed to Carl Czerny. This Nocturne was a perfect case study because of its simplicity and structure (AABB).

Tempo Flexibility

Another feature of the early recordings that might streak our modern ears is the tempo flexibility that is to be found in their performances. Though nowadays slowing down is still accepted if used with moderation, acceleration of the general tempo is very much condemned by teachers from the very first lessons.

The term “rubato” presents a certain historical ambiguity, since its first use was to express the freedom between the melody and the accompaniment  (be it between two instrumentalists or between the hands of the keyboard player). It has come to our days as a synonym of “tempo modification” (changing of the beat, namely, rushing or decelerating); during the 19th century, both meanings co-existed.

How did Chopin understand rubato? Was it synonymous with complete freedom and arbitrariness of rhythm, or was it just the expression of a living undulation of tempo which avoided an exact coincidence with the strict metric framework […] Mikuli, on the basis of his personal reminiscences, answered as follows:

“Chopin was far from being a partisan to metric rigour and frequently used rubato in his playing, accelerating or slowing down this or that theme. But Chopin’s rubato possessed an unshakeable emotional logic. It always justified itself by a strengthening or weakening of the melodic line, by harmonic details, by the figurative structure. It was fluid, natural; it never degenerated into exaggeration or affectation.”

Finding the way of being organic in a flexible and spontaneous way of the “Hangen und Bangen” is one of the most difficult challenges performers face nowadays; thanks to it, I could learn enormously by experimenting with the Waltzes Opus 69 of Frédéric Chopin.

LAURA GRANERO (Madrid, 1991)

A fortepianist and researcher specialised in 19th century performance practice and currently based in Switzerland. As an artist-researcher Laura is field of research is early recordings, and the study of the vocality at the piano in Schumann’s music.

Graduated with honors at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in the class of Edoardo Torbianelli, she has given recitals throughout Europe, performing, among others, at the Festival Royaumont, Noites de Queluz, Fabulous Fringe Oude Muziek in Utrecht, Quincena Musical de San Sebastián, Festival de Santander, Festival de La Nouvelle Athènes (Salle Cortot), Festival Pianos, Pianos (Théâtre aux Bouffes du Nord), Klavieren in Zutphen (Holland)…

She is the artistic director of the Fortepiano Project Notre Temps, which aims at promoting the presence of the fortepiano at the Iberian Peninsula. In 2018, she founded the Marie Soldat Ensemble, which works as a lab where performers and researchers meet in order to play together and exchange knowledge (feat. Clive Brown, Leila Schayegh, Johannes Gebauer, Aldo Mata, Sebastian Bausch, Kai Köpp…).


Letter of Georg Sand to Franz Liszt, July 1835. English translation by Edmund R. Larken (George Sand: Miller of Angibault. Ed. by Matilda M. Hays, published in London: E. Churton, 26, Holles Street, 1847)

“Dans un salon de La Nouvelle Athènes”, Son An Ero, 2019 / 2020. CD booklet, page 10

“Dans un salon de La Nouvelle Athènes”, Son An Ero, 2019 / 2020. CD booklet, page 15

Emilie von Gretsch, quoted in: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by his Pupils, 1986, Cambridge University Press, page 45)

Mikuli, Carl, Vorwort to Fr. Chopin’s Pianoforte-Werke, edited by Mikuli,Leipzig, Kistner, [1880], 17 vols.

Koczalski, Raoul, Frederic Chopin. Betrachtungen, Skizzen, Analysen, page 203. Koln, Tischer & Jagenberg, 1936

Wilhelm von Lenz, Obersichtliche Beurtheilung der Pianoforte-Kompositionen von Chopin’. Neue Berliner Musikzeitung, XXVII36, 37, 38 (I872), pp. 282-3, 285)-92, 297-9

Polydor, 67246 B

Michalowski, Aleksander, ‘Jak gral Fryderyk Szopen?’ [How did Chopin play?], pages 74-75. Muzyka, IX/7-9 (1932), pp. 72-7


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