THE FORTEPIANO was that hybrid 18th century keyboard instrument combining the tone of the harpsichord with the softer but expressive clavichord. Its valuable addition to chamber music was clearly shown Sunday to almost 200 fans of Pro Musica Rara in a Mozart-Haydn-Beethoven piano trio concert at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
At the keyboard was Shirley Mathews, her foot on a stool rather than a pedal, her fingers flying or sauntering over five octaves instead of eight and her head nodding a conductor's signals to violinist Cynthia Roberts and cellist Allen Whear.
Mathews' piano musicianship guided the charming passages on a 1785 instrument copy made by her husband, Rod Regier, in their Freeport, Maine, home. One listener wished he could hear more fortepiano (or pianoforte) music in Baltimore.
Roberts played an 18th century German violin and Whear played a recently made copy of an 18th century cello, held off the floor by his calves in the style before cello spikes. The early-music group played three trios with brisk pace, fine tone and good fun. When Roberts popped a string with startling noise in the Beethoven trio and left for repairs, Mathews stood up and formally announced to laughter, "Things like this never happen at authentic concerts."
The delightful afternoon was called "Beethoven's Birthday (220th) and the Fortepiano Trio," but the program could have been played on Haydn's or Mozart's birthday, with slightly different justification. Both Haydn and Mozart taught Beethoven, Haydn from December 1792 to January 1794 in Vienna. Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat was composed in this general period and Haydn was to hear it on his return from England where he composed a trio also heard Sunday.
Separating himself from other piano trio composers, the young Beethoven even then showed the old master Haydn he was his own man, adding a scherzo for four movements rather than the usual three, giving the cello more than a secondary role and coloring the texture with little surprises. The Pro Musica Trio gave it an enchanting performance.
The program began with Mathews' fortepiano definitely in charge and Roberts making several lovely forays in Mozart's Trio in C major (1788), the first of three Mozart trios in which the strings began to wiggle free of the keyboard.
Haydn's Trio in F-sharp minor (1794-95), whose middle section later became the basis for the adagio of Symphony No. 102, is a more complex work than Mozart's, but the main role is still assigned to the pianist. Roberts played her passages elegantly, and all three artists cleverly followed the subtle tempo changes of the melodic piece.
Pro Musica Rara's next concert at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, at the museum features flutist Timothy Day and music written for Frederick the Great of Prussia and his court.