Getting to Know Fortepianist Sylvia Berry

This November’s Mozart and Beethoven Quintet concert brings us a great opportunity to invite four world-class performers to join us. We’ve enjoyed the chance to introduce them to you, and to get to know them better ourselves, through these featurettes leading up to the concert.

If you don’t have your tickets yet, you can find them on our website:

Mozart & Beethoven Quintets

This week, we’d like to introduce (or reintroduce) you to fortepianist Sylvia Berry


Sylvia has been with us in the past, and last year we were thrilled to have her with us for Fortepiano Day, as well as our concerts, Mozart in Paris, pt 2.

Philadelphia native Sylvia Berry is one of North America’s leading exponents of the fortepiano. Hailed by Early Music America as “a complete master of rhetoric, whether in driving passagework or [in] cantabile adagios,” she is known not only for her exciting performances but for her engaging commentary about the music and the instruments she plays. Her disc of Haydn’s London Sonatas (recorded on an 1806 Broadwood grand) garnered critical acclaim. A review in Fanfare enthused, “To say that Berry plays these works with vim, vigor, verve, and vitality, is actually a bit of an understatement.” She dedicates herself to the performance practices of the 18th and early 19th centuries with an avid interest in the sociological phenomena surrounding the music of that period. She is also the founder and artistic director of The Berry Collective, a period chamber ensemble featuring repertoire spanning from Schobert to Schubert.

We asked Sylvia to answer a few questions so we could get to know her even better. And she responded with some wonderful answers and ideas!

How did you end up specializing in early music instead of something else? Was there a person or a particular piece that set you on this path?

Although I’d had some exposure to the harpsichord in high school, and heard some fortepiano recordings growing up, it all really happened at Oberlin. I’d transferred there from NEC after an injury – Peter Tak├ícs came to my rescue and revamped my technique. While we were working on a Mozart sonata, K. 332, he sent me to see our fortepiano professor David Breitman to discuss ornamentation in the slow movement. We did everything at the modern piano and at the end David asked if I wanted to try the fortepiano. I tried it but felt self-conscious and didn’t enjoy it.

But a year or so later a funny thing happened: violinist Joseph Tan, then a graduate student in the Historical Performance program, became my housemate. I was working on the Mozart Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, and he lent me Malcolm Bilson’s Mozart concerto set. I loved it! At the end of first semester he told me that Breitman would be teaching a course on the history of the accompanied keyboard sonata that would give students a chance to study the repertoire and try the instruments. I signed up immediately. I had a key to the special keyboard rooms since I was studying organ too, and in preparation for the class I started playing the fortepiano on my own during Winter Term. I brought big stacks of music to the fortepiano room and really enjoyed myself! I loved playing Mozart on the Richard Hester/Anton Walter replica we had then. I loved that in many cases, the music sounded a bit rough and rude. Mozart’s letters are full of humor ÔÇô and rudeness at times ÔÇô and the music’s character came alive for me in a new way. Passage work was easier. Alberti bass patterns were FUN to play instead of being arduous, and for once I didn’t have to try and play them really softly so as not to drown out the right hand.

During David’s course it became apparent to me in every work we studied that the fortepiano was the perfect partner in terms of balance: not just in the violin sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, but in Schubert’s Lieder as well. Towards the end of the semester David brought in a replica of an early 19th century fortepiano and I brought in a baritone to do a set of Schubert songs we’d prepared for his senior recital. The song with the “biggest” piano part, An Schwager Kronos, was a revelation on the earlier piano. So many things came to light: the relentless barrage of notes (octaves, thickly voiced repeated chords in the left hand, cascades of staccato arpeggios in the right hand) were not only easier to pull off, they were in perfect balance with the voice! I didn’t have to worry about being too loud. The repeated figures were also easier to shape. The hair raising ride to hell depicted in the song was even more exhilarating than it had been on the massive, modern piano. It was also clear to me that even though the fortepiano had less volume, it had a much wider dynamic range. I was sold. That was my real “Saul on the Road to Damascus” moment. I then went on to study fortepiano for six years in Holland, where I got to play a Viennese piano built in the 1820’s every day, in addition to many other antiques. It was amazing.

What do you think is the best thing about your instrument?

After 20 years of playing various kinds of early pianos, I’m still struck by the fact that they have much more dynamic range than their modern counterparts. No, they are not as loud overall. Yes, sometimes in chamber music situations you can actually get covered by your partners ÔÇô a big reversal from using modern instruments. (Note that the acclaimed pianist and vocal accompanist Gerald Moore entitled his memoir, Am I Too Loud?) When composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert call for sudden dynamic changes, it is infinitely easier to pull them off at the pianos they knew. Overall, the Viennese pianos from c. 1770-1830 provide a vast array of colors and sonorities.

For example, many Viennese fortepianos from this period have a device called a “moderator” that slips a piece of cloth between the hammers and the strings. It adds a muted sound that the modern piano’s una corda (“one string”) pedal can never truly approximate. It is ethereal and other-worldly, and I can usually sense the audience’s surprise and wonder when they first hear this sound. (I will use it a few times for this program.) There are 6 and 6-octave Viennese pianos from c. 1815 -1830 (think middle and late period Beethoven and Schubert) that not only have a moderator, but a double moderator as well: This slips not one but TWO pieces of cloth in between the hammers and the strings! From this we can surmise that the Viennese loved being able to play very softly! When Schubert called for ppp, he might well have imagined someone using the una corda and the moderator simultaneously. The English pianos of the time, though they don’t have moderators, still have a wider dynamic range than their modern counterparts.

From a technical perspective, many things are easier to play. The keys are smaller and the key dip (how far the key travels downward) is shallower. In fast passagework I often feel like I’m flying.

What do you think is the most challenging thing about your instrument?

Some of the things that I said were positives can be negatives too. The shallower key dip can sometimes make things feel out of control. If you’ve built up a “modern” piano technique which takes a lot of strength, and you’re used to the feeling of deeper key dip, the flying sensation I described can be frightening. It can feel more like flailing on ice. This is why you have to accept the fortepiano on its own terms and really take time to study it. Studying harpsichord, organ, and clavichord is also important in helping to inform the technique and articulation needed to play early pianos.

On a completely practical level, playing the fortepiano is challenging because you have to move it. After I got accepted into the Master’s degree program in Historical Performance, I went for my first fortepiano lesson with David Breitman full of anticipation and excitement about working on the music of my beloved “Viennese masters.” However, when David opened the door he said, “If you want to play these, you have to learn to move them.” Then we moved a couple of his pianos out of his studio and into his van! When I told my modern piano teacher, Peter Tak├ícs, that I was going to do the Master’s in historical keyboard instruments, he said, “You’ll have to buy a van!” I didn’t even know how to drive then! But for two decades now I’ve been moving pianos and all other manner of keyboard instruments, and I’m on my second minivan now.

Overall I also have to admit that historical keyboard instruments are more fussy ÔÇô you have to tune them more often, they are more susceptible to atmospheric changes, etc. ÔÇô but I love them. They might be more fussy, but to me they have more character too.

Have you played the Mozart or Beethoven quintets before?

Yes, and with period instruments each time.

What are you most looking forward to in these performances?

There are a lot of fun moments in these pieces, and I always look forward to those. Mozart crafted a phenomenal “fake-out” in the last movement of his quintet that leads into an extended ensemble cadenza (notated as “cadenza in tempo”), but he heightened the drama even further by adding a coda to the cadenza – it just won’t end! Keeping the coda as quiet as possible until the last possible moment when it finally explodes is some of the best theater you can have without actors or singers! The slow movement is also gorgeous and full of soul – just so moving. Mozart loved Harmoniemusik (wind ensemble music) and you can tell that writing this piece provided him with a way to participate in that, and also play with friends of his. The Beethoven Quintet, which takes Mozart’s as a model, is also full of irrepressible fun. Beethoven adds one of his massive, surprise codas at the end of the first movement, but there’s a great fake out in the last movement as well that takes a completely different tack from Mozart’s. Instead of ramping up the excitement he winds the energy down for a moment until the wind ensemble winds it up again over a long, shimmering trill in the piano, all of which leads to an exuberant ending. It’s a wonderful way of tweaking the form and winking at the audience – Beethoven doesn’t get enough credit for his humor!

These compositional devices would have left audiences at the time breathless with excitement. I look forward to feeling that energy from the audience as they experience these things. I hope that even if these pieces are familiar to them, it might feel as though they’re hearing them for the first time. Indeed, I hope there are people in the audience who have never heard these works on period instruments who find these concerts to be a revelation.

How would you describe either of these pieces to someone hearing them for the first time?

I think it’s good to view them as “Harmoniemusik meets Piano Concerto.” This instrumentation was quite novel for the time. As I said earlier, Mozart had many friends who played wind instruments, some of whom he wrote works for. (One of the horn concertos he wrote for his friend Joseph Leutgeb has smart aleck comments aimed at him in the score! This performance has the running commentary projected above the orchestra.) Mozart loved Harmoniemusik and wanted to play within that texture. As a virtuoso pianist, he gave himself the kind of passagework you’d find in a concerto, but he also treats the piano as a true partner and accompanist. Beethoven, another powerhouse pianist, follows the same formula. The winds get to shine, and the piano gets to shine. Both composers often treat the winds as one entity and the piano as the other; I think this has to do, in part, with balance issues. When these works are played on instruments of the day, there’s a distinct possibility that the winds might overpower the piano. In the slow movements of both pieces, the piano creates a lush background for the winds to bask in, creating sumptuous waves of sound over which the winds soar and sing.

What should people listen for?

They should listen for the interplay between each player, but also the interplay between the winds as one entity and the piano as another. I think the works are more conversational on period instruments.

Another thing to listen for is constant use of surprise and spontaneity. In every piece, especially Beethoven’s Variations on God Save the King, they should remember that Mozart and Beethoven were both master improvisers, and that their audiences listened to their performances with the same engagement and interaction found in jazz audiences of today .Mozart describes many of his solo performances in that way, with the audience listening raptly to see what he’d do, sometimes clapping and calling out to him. So too, Haydn and Mozart described performances of their non-improvisational works where the audience would hear something novel that would excite them so much they’d start clapping and asking for it to be performed again. (I feel very lucky to have been taken to jazz concerts by my parents, because these accounts remind me exactly of what happened between the musicians and the audience.) It is said that people wept when they heard Beethoven improvise. I’m not suggesting that that people start clapping, weeping, or calling out to us during the concert, because that is not our concert tradition. However, I hope they will trying listening to these works not as beloved favorites that have become part of our familiar landscape, but as new works that are full of surprises.

Also: Listen for Beethoven’s unconventional pedal markings in the first movement and last movements that require you to raise the dampers during scale passages! On modern pianos the sound becomes too massive ÔÇô on a piano from Beethoven’s time, it creates a wall of sound, but doesn’t overpower the texture.

What do you think it is about these composers that still speaks to modern audiences so strongly?

Though our aesthetics have changed, and performances and audiences have changed, we are human after all. Mozart and Beethoven and all the other beloved composers we now call “classical” had the same feelings we have: feelings of love and loss, exuberance and sadness, comedy and tragedy. These two quintets embody all those states. I still remember the first time I heard them (principal winds of the Philadelphia Orchestra with Wolfgang Swallisch at the piano) because I was filled with exhilaration at the end of each one! Every time I’ve performed these works, I’ve sensed that the audiences have been similarly overjoyed; the last movements of each just bring that out in people. I feel lucky to be able to play this music on a wonderful instrument (an old friend that I’ve had for 18 years) with fabulous friends and colleagues for highly appreciative audiences! It never gets old.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sylvia. We can’t wait for you and the rest of the musicians to take us on this journey!

Mozart & Beethoven Quintets