Prokofiev’s last piano plays again after 146 years

Written by By Han Sung-han, CNN Seoul, South Korea

On July 15, the last piano piece composed by Sergei Prokofiev will be played in a sumptuous modern hall in Europe.

But for the piano that played its last notes 146 years ago, it’s been a far more busy of a year.

A conservatory in South Korea now has one of the last surviving grand pianos owned by Prokofiev and a project to rehabilitate the instrument is underway.

American pianist and music historian Emily Fishman visited the conservatory in Dangjin, a city about 100 kilometers south of Seoul, in March to help it in its fundraising and rehabilitation efforts.

And the project wasn’t all that she had expected.

“I thought that, when I first stepped into the conservatory, I’d found a vast garden of pianos,” she told CNN during a visit to Seoul.

“I was totally wrong. I found a tiny converted hall from 1890 where a sound engineer is attempting to rehabilitate the instrument. It was just extraordinary.”

The former room has a large row of piano mallets that need to be removed. Credit: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Fishman said that the piano’s performance — as well as its condition — is a testament to Prokofiev’s dedication to music.

In 1891, when the first piano was installed, it was “one of the most important pianos in the world,” she said.

Musicians had to come to the house (which is in Dangjin’s historic district) to record compositions of the day; it played the score and the parts were transferred onto “live piano sheets” using metallic nail-pads, which were shaped, erased and put on a wet cloth before recording to prevent the piano playing out.

“The last performance on a Prokofiev piano was in 1909. All the major performers of his time recorded with the piano,” she said.

Fishman performed the exact same exact note on the piano as the musician who recorded Prokofiev’s 1941 composition “Russian Dance,” one of the composer’s last masterpieces. She is the first US-based pianist to perform there.

The conservatory’s conservator Guillaume Lang claims the piano was manufactured by piano manufacturing giant Alessandro Pepponi in 1910.

Fishman was surprised to find that, although he specialized in wood furniture manufacturing, Pepponi was also well-known for piano production.

A key leader in 18th-century French design, the Italian-born engineer made wooden furniture and pianos.

He also worked with one of the Italian piano makers of the time, a Rinaldo Cerros — who was best known for his classics, including the pianoforte.

“The Rivolosi (Rinaldo Cerros) are a big part of the history of piano production,” said Cherry Lewis, the conservatory’s director of music.

To mark the launch of the new campaign, “Prokofiev’s Last Pianist” in April, the conservatory hosted a tribute concert, which featured 13 pianists and two drummers, who played to Prokofiev’s compositions.

The art collection of the villa includes violin, viola, cello and cello as well as rare painting pieces. Credit: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Prokofiev found fame and fortune early in his career as a prolific composer and pianist, but for most of his life, his most cherished passion was as a painter, Lewis said.

“Prokofiev had a huge collection of paintings and his art collection was used as a collateral in financing his instruments,” she said.

“He was a great collector, he collected Old Masters and everything European art from the time period he was born in Russia.”

She said Prokofiev was given free access to several of the most prestigious palaces in Moscow, and studied at “super-elite” schools in Moscow and the Moscow Conservatory.

Prokofiev’s estate includes a museum with works by some of his favorite artists including Matisse, Picasso and Claude Monet.

The villa also has a vast art collection including paintings by Monet, Raphael, Velasquez, Rembrandt and others. The collection includes works by 14 different artists, according to Fishman.

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