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Old charm in new world

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-14 06:43

Wang Yuehan [Photo provided to China Daily]

She studied the piano like many other children in China and was trained to become a modern pianist at the middle school affiliated to the Wuhan Conservatory of Music, and later graduated from the Wuhan Conservatory of Music.

But in 2013, when Wang Yuehan, then a student at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music in the United States, was introduced to fortepiano for the first time by her teacher, Elisabeth Wright, a professor of harpsichord and fortepiano at the school's Historical Performance Institute, she was struck by how the instrument speaks to her and decided to launch a career in researching and playing the instrument.

Fortepiano, an early version of the piano, has changed tremendously since Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori invented it around 1700. Compared with the piano, it has a softer sound and smaller frame. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fortepiano was popular.

Compared with modern pianos, the fortepiano has a smaller range of five and a half octaves. The pedals are placed beneath the keyboard, which are controlled by a player's knees instead of feet.

Wang says, thanks to the fortepiano, she discovered lost sounds that are even more faithful to scores since many great composers wrote for the fortepiano.

On Nov 11, Wang released an album, Beloved, featuring eight piano sonatas by Mozart. Mozart composed 18 piano sonatas in his lifetime. The sonatas provide a glimpse into a composer's personality, as well as a fantastic sound.

Mozart also had a special bond with the fortepiano since he acquired a fortepiano by Anton Walter, the well-known fortepiano maker of his time, as a concert instrument and played it regularly in his academy concerts in various concert halls in Vienna between 1782 and 1791.

"The process of selecting the pieces for the new album took me over a year. I played Mozart's 18 piano sonatas over and over until I selected the eight pieces, which connected to me the most," says Wang, 32, who was born in Wuhan, Hubei province, and received her master's degree from Jacobs School of Music, double majoring in piano and fortepiano, in 2017.

One year before her graduation, she bought a fortepiano made in the Czech Republic, a faithful replica of a fortepiano made by the Viennese piano maker Anton Walter in 1805.She returned to China in 2017 and has been promoting the fortepiano since then.

She says playing Mozart's piano sonatas on the fortepiano requires a different touch from the "pounding "that a modern piano usually takes. The fortepiano offers special insights into compositional details such as articulation, tempo, use of the pedal, touch and key release.

"Once the ear has tuned in to the sound world of the fortepiano, the colors, textures, articulation and expression are surprisingly varied from those of a piano," she adds. "The fortepiano helps me to better understand the reason and logic of their composition."

Meanwhile, the fortepiano is more "soft-spoken" than a modern piano, which is designed to be played for audiences in large concert halls. When she recorded the new album, Wang, along with sound engineer Feng Hanying, who is the producer and recording director of the album, went to a studio of about 400 square meters in Beijing. They spent four days recording the album there.

"Imagine the picture of 6-year-old Mozart playing on the clavier at Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, for the imperial family. The audience must have been very close to him then," says Feng, who visited Schonbrunn Palace several years ago.

"We tried to find the sound which brings back the music of Mozart's time to the listeners," Feng adds.

Beloved is the second album of Wang.

On Nov 11, 2021, Wang released her debut album, titled Mozart: Fantasie & Rondo, performing the composer's works: Fantasie in C Minor, K 396; Fantasie in D Minor, K 397; Fantasie in C Minor, K 475; Rondo in D Major, K 485; and Rondo in A Minor, K 511. All pieces were performed on the fortepiano.

Fortepianist Wang Yuehan recording her album, Beloved, released on Nov 11. [Photo provided to China Daily]

This year, she toured nationwide and performed at Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, Wuhan and Beijing. With each city she toured, Wang traveled with her instrument, which weighs about 100 kilograms.

"I arrived at concert halls around 10 am, because the tuning process of the fortepiano is much longer than the piano. The fortepiano is made almost entirely of wood and doesn't have a cast-iron frame like today's pianos, so it is heavily affected by temperature and humidity," says Wang.

In the afternoon, about two or three hours before a concert started, she had to tune her instrument again to ensure sound quality.

"Many children who came to my concerts are piano learners. They were very curious about the fortepiano, especially when I told them how the instrument 'informed' and 'guided' composers such as Mozart," says Wang. "It's a good start to let them appreciate and respond to what the fortepiano can provide, with my concerts."

Wang has been teaching at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing since 2019. Though fortepiano is still a selective course, she helps her students to better understand history and development of classical music with her demonstration of the instrument.

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