It’s all piano, all the time at the William Kapell Competition, which concludes Saturday night when the three finalists play concertos with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But on Thursday night, Richard Egarr, a member of the competition’s international jury, offered a change of pace with an instrument of a different color — literally. Describing the standard concert grand as a “black beast,” he presented a “brown and yellow beast” instead — a delicate five-legged fortepiano, replicating a Viennese instrument from the start of the 19th century, sitting demurely on the stage of the Clarice Smith Center’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall.
Egarr specializes in repertory from the time such instruments were current, although, as he said in a presentation that was more a lecture-demonstration than a concert, he would need at least four instruments to illustrate what each composer — Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Dussek — had on hand. The one he had, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of Northern Virginia, was an elegant little filly, amplifying Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C, giving its best in two movements of a Haydn Sonata in G, and slightly muted in the chronologically latest piece on the program, a dramatic Fantasia and Fugue in F Minor by Jan Ladislav Dussek, written in 1804 but seeming, as Egarr pointed out, a foretaste of romanticism.
Performing a recital when you’re a jury member of a competition is an unenviable assignment; having spent a week or so holding extremely talented musicians to exacting standards, you’re pitting yourself against them, and you can be sure at least a few of them are in the audience. Egarr in a way bypassed the problem by setting himself up as a professor, although when you ask whether anyone in the house has heard a clavichord before and half of those present raise their hands, you might assume that you’re dealing with a crowd knowledgeable enough not to need to be told, at the end of the evening, that “knowledge is fun!”
For aficionados, Egarr’s distinctive, idiomatic playing did just as much edifying as his spoken comments. Those who like their Bach played with sewing-machine regularity might have drawn up at the gentle downward tugs of the low notes in each arpeggiated figure, but the result was that each note seemed to have something to say: articulate individualism, rather than overripe romantic rubato.
The evening went from the very familiar — the Bach, or Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor that ended the program — to a short excursus on the life and work of the less-known Dussek, a celebrity in his time. Egarr offered two strongly contrasting Dussek pieces: “The Sufferings of the Queen of France” was a romantic melodrama depicting the final hours of Marie Antoinette in a manner that could only have titillated 1793 audiences (Egarr read out the headings of each section — along the lines of “The Queen looks back on the glories of the past” — and simply nodded his head at the gliding descent of the guillotine). The dark fantasia was an altogether more ambitious artistic endeavor, and the pairing illustrated the facets of piano literature of the period every bit as well as the proverbial thousand words.