“When I am not in the mood, I play on the Erard piano, where I find the ready tone easily. But when I am full of vigour and strong enough to find my very own tone – I need a Pleyel piano”
Those lines crystallize Chopin’s attitude to the other great piano manufacturer of 19th-century Paris: the firm of Sebsastien Erard. To this day, the very name “Erard” stands as a symbol of French manufacturing – both mythology and metallurgy, on par with the Eiffel Tower and Citröen automobiles.
The Erard’s claim to fame was that it could make a bigger sound with a lighter touch, thanks to its patented double échappement - that is “double escapement” mechanism – in effect, making the hammer strike the piano string with twice the force that it would a Pleyel. “Light, responsive and powerful” was the Erard’s marketing cry.
Which explained both the Erard’s runaway popularity…and Chopin’s ambivalence. A former student wrote in his diary, “…on the resistant kind of piano, it is impossible to obtain the finer nuances of movement in the wrist and forearm, each finger moving in isolation. I experienced this nuance playing at the home of Chopin on his beautiful [Pleyel] piano with a touch so like that of the Viennese instruments. He calls it a ‘perfidious traitor.’ What came out perfectly on my solid and robust Erard became brusque and ugly on Chopin’s piano. He found it dangerous to use for too long an instrument with a beautiful sound, such as the Erard. He said that those instruments destroy the touch: ‘It makes no difference whether you tap the keys lightly or strike them more forcefully: the sound is always beautiful and the ear asks for nothing more, for it is under the spell of the full, rich sound.’
Chopin may have preferred the Pleyel, but in our time the Erard has emerged as the instrument of choice for historical performances. Both pianists Emanuel Ax, and more recently, Dang Thai Son have recorded Chopin’s piano concertos on Erard pianos. In fact, the Fryderyk Chopin institute in Warsaw has begun an entire new series of CDs called “The Real Chopin” – dedicated to playing Chopin’s music as Chopin heard it. - Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr & Benjamin K. Roe