Period musical instruments are like a time machine, taking both the listener and the performer back to past centuries. Different from contemporary instruments in terms of sound features, form and executive techniques, period instruments often allow to understand some aspects of music before nineteenth century that otherwise would remain unknown. It is precisely in the search of this knowledge that the Savigni Duo , composed of Laura (pianist) and her sister Enrica (guitarist), started their journey into music for fortepiano and nineteenth century guitar. They both held a degree at the Parma Boito Conservatory with the highest honours, then they carried on their period instrument studies with some post-graduate courses: Laura Savigni is attending a fortepiano specialization course at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart with Professor Stefania Neonato, while Enrica attended, and terminated with great success, a two-year 19th century guitar perfecting course at the Milan Accademia Civica with maestros Claudio Maccari and Paolo Pugliese.
How was the idea of playing period instruments born?
ES: I had the first input. My nineteenth century guitar studies made me discover a new repertoire and a new instrument. My sister and I were already thinking about performing together but the guitar-piano duo did not work well: on the one hand the guitar had to make a big effort to obtain a powerful sound, on the other hand the piano had to contain its sound possibilities. Then we have been asked to play at the Parma Glauco Lombardi Museum, home to the duchess Marie Louise of Austria’s original fortepiano. It was the first opportunity for us to perform together with a fortepiano. From the very first rehearsal we realized that it was exactly the right sonority, the perfect timbre fusion allowing us to play without restraints. We therefore decided to move down that road, getting closer to the nineteenth century style, trying to imagine how this music was executed at that time and committing ourselves to reproduce it as best as possible.
To what extent the shift from modern to period instruments made you change your playing method?
LS: The study is still in progress. As far as I am concerned, the biggest challenge has been changing the score reading approach: it means listening to this repertoire a lot and learning a new language. Moreover, playing fortepiano implies relying more on a nimble fingering rather than on the body weight. As a consequence it is a parallel study of both sound and technique. Finally, I have learnt something which usually pianists are not accustomed to, namely tuning the instrument by myself. ES: Besides the aspects that Laura mentioned, I also ran into some physical changes as well. The modern guitar is bigger and you play it arching your arm over its body, while the nineteenth century guitar has a smaller body size and you wear it over the shoulder. I felt like an elephant in comparison, at first. Furthermore, technique changes a lot: period guitars’ strings are plucked with the fingertips and not with the nails (nails would ruin them as they are not nylon strings but gut strings). Therefore, the shift to the early instrument entails learning again some passages that used to turn out well before. Finally, period guitars can be played while standing as well, therefore the body weight may help in the performance and sometimes the expressive purpose may change.
Did you buy some period instruments for your practicing? Where is it possible to purchase them?
ES: I have two guitars: a 1868 Hijos de Gonzales Spanish guitar and a 1828 Pasquale Vinaccia Neapolitan guitar. They are two very different models since at that time guitars used to vary a lot from one another in terms of acoustic, resonant cavity and neck. Each guitar fits a specific repertoire. The market of period instruments has been developing in recent years in response to the increased interest risen on them. This notwithstanding, purchasers have still to pay attention to the presumed quality of the products on sale. LS: I bought a Clementi & Co fortepiano produced in London in 1820. It goes well with Enrica’s Vinaccia guitar very as the two instruments are the same age. I opted for a table-version fortepiano so that it would have been easier to carry it for concerts and people who invited us would not have been forced to hire one (as a matter of fact, there are very few places in Italy equipped with full-functioning fortepianos). However, transporting it across Italy tends to present some difficulties: my fortepiano is 176 lbs weight and it takes a man to lift it up. I find it useful to have a fortepiano at home for practicing.
Which is the repertoire for fortepiano and nineteenth century guitar? Is music composed for amateurs or for experts?
ES: For both: music may range from very simple to more complex. Many composers who wrote for this ensemble were Italians who have been working abroad, mainly in Paris or Vienna. With the exception of Anton Diabelli (a pianist who arranged some guitar solos as well), they were mostly guitarists: Ferdinando Carulli, Mauro Giuliani, Johann Kaspar Mertz. LS: The more complex pieces for fortepiano rose from the collaboration between guitarist Mauro Giuliani and two virtuoso pianists, Ignaz Moscheles and Joahnn Nepomuk Hummel: we are dealing with some Biedermeier-style, nimble, straight-forward and impacting pages, while Johann Kaspar Mertz is more romantic.
Which texts do you rely on for studying the repertoire?
LS: It is paramount to study on original score facsimiles and, at the same time, to read some essays of the time providing information about fingering and interpretation. This approach allows to learn more about the original performance. Sometimes, in fact, more recent versions of these texts are added with historically wrong interpretation instructions. ES: There is a website where you can find the whole original guitar repertoire but I realized that many young guitarists are not aware of its existence. As far as texts are concerned, I find those by Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and other guitar composers (each with his own method) very worthwhile.
How does the public react to these concerts proposing such an unusual repertoire?
LS: Our performances are usually preceded by an introduction providing some data about the music and the instruments the audience will be listening to. Usually our public has never seen these nineteenth century instruments before, therefore it is necessary to contextualize these uncommon sounds in history. In the end listeners appreciate the repertoire a lot and I believe they equally feel how much we are having fun while playing. ES: Some brilliant, operatic pieces are similar to a Rossini’s crescendo, sometimes the final applause sprouts freely much before the end of the final chord.
I guess that you keep playing both the modern and the period instruments: which are the difficulties linked to this shift?
LS: A fluent move from contemporary to period instruments requires a complete assimilation of a precise technique and language: I am still working on it. I find it more pleasing to play the twentieth century repertoire on a piano and the nineteenth century repertoire on a fortepiano. Using the two makes you realize their advantages and disadvantages: it is not always necessary to play the whole nineteenth century repertoire on a fortepiano but knowing how it should be executed on a period instrument makes you more aware of how music originally created for a different instrument is transposed. Moreover, fortepiano helped me discover original timbre aspects: the moderator pedal (interjecting a layer of felt between the hammer and the plucked string) made me realize what Schubert intended by indicating a pianissimo with three ‘p’ on the score. It is almost impossible to reproduce that same effect on a contemporary piano. ES: The move from contemporary to period guitar (and vice versa) is always troublesome and, in view of a concert, it is necessary to focus thoroughly on the period one in order to get into the mechanism. It is equally useful to exercise your muscle practicing on the modern guitar at first, then moving to the period version, whose smaller body size and keyboard makes some technical passages easier.
What do you wish for your future?
ES: I wish that many more guitarists and musicians discovered the importance of playing period instruments, not necessarily to perform in concerts but to understand certain aspects of music history and of your instrument history. The Conservatory studies just focus on one repertoire for ten years without paying much attention to the executive procedures of the time or to the distinctive features of the instruments which those pieces were originally intended for. There is not much curiosity nor knowledge (with the exception of some teachers). I would like to carry on our project in schools or in music facilities to share what I am discovering, as a guitarist.
Translation by Elisa Campani