Meeting the Minotaur

My friend Michael owns a Steinway B, purchased brand new 18 months ago when he retired. Unlike most businessmen who, on retirement, buy a big boy’s toy, like a Porsche or an Aston Martin, Michael eschewed such trinkets and instead chose the piano he had always wanted, trading in his very nice Yamaha grand for an even bigger, shinier 7-foot Steinway.

It fills almost half the sitting room of his spacious home in Camberley, a black beast squatting in the corner. The family photographs and ornaments which adorn its lid do little to soften its vast statue. This is no parlour piano: this is an instrument for a serious musician who values sound quality and subtlety of touch, expert workmanship and high-end design and manufacturing above all else. On the rack is Schumann’s famously difficult ‘Kreisleriana’, and beside the score, a Mont Blanc propelling pencil for annotations, an appropriate accessory for such an upmarket piece of musical furniture.

I first played the ‘Minotaur’, as I call it in my mind, only a few weeks after Michael purchased the piano, when it was still “settling in” to its new home. I drove down the M3 with a sense of excitement and trepidation: the last Steinway I played was my previous teacher’s in Rickmansworth in 1985, an old instrument which had probably received a far amount of abuse from a procession of willing and unwilling piano students. Sadly, I don’t get my hands on a really nice piano that often, except for my regular appointments with my current teacher’s antique Bechstein, and a mini-recital on a 1920s Bluthner at Russborough House in Co. Wicklow last summer….

Arriving at the house, the piano was unveiled for me, the protective felt cover for the keys carefully removed, rather in the manner of a Japanese tea ceremony. “Michael’s left you some music” Ruth, Michael’s wife, said. Apart from the Schumann, there was Rachmaninov, Granados, Debussy, as well as the obligatory Bach and Beethoven collections. Always interesting to see what someone else is working on: Michael’s taste is definitely more Romantically-oriented than mine (though I did spy a collection of Scarlatti sonatas). My initial experience with the Steinway was a depressing one: everything I played felt heavy-handed, too loud in the bass (despite living in a sitting room with soft-furnishings and fitted carpet, it has a massive bass voice), and generally unbalanced. Was it me? Or was it the piano…..? Grumbling about it to Rolf, my piano tuner, a week later, he blamed the piano. “Of course, you are used to a Yamaha!” he said reassuringly, agreeing with me that Steinways could be fickle creatures, and that playing one, even a brand new one, can be akin to driving a sports car. “I knew you wouldn’t like it!”.

The second time I played it, it was better – and I felt it growing on me the longer I played it. Maybe I was less in awe of it? Or perhaps I was just better able to adjust my playing to suit it. In any event, it is a lovely piano and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from my ad hoc recitals on it, while Ruth prepares the lunch. It is also a very useful experience as it is an opportunity to play current repertoire to a different audience.

The Bach Toccata, which is comfortably “in the fingers” after 5 week’s work, so I can now enjoy finessing its colour and shape, sounded grand and stately on the Steinway – as I hoped it would. The Chopin Etude (Op 10/3) had a nice mellowness, though I cocked up the dread 6ths in the climactic middle section – as I knew I would (this section really needs to be practised every day!) – and I collapsed into “Eric Morecambe-style playing”. The Debussy Prelude (‘Voiles’), which I have not touched since my Christmas Concert, was languid and transparent, something I have been struggling to achieve at home. It’s a piece that is very well suited to an instrument with a very singing, limpid treble set over a deep, resonant bass – perfect for those recurring B-flat pedal points.

I was just enjoying a cup of tea prior to setting off back up the M3 to return home, when Michael arrived back from a meeting. I played Mozart’s K511 Rondo for him – giving him an opportunity to enjoy the lovely sound of his piano and a chance for him to appraise whether it really did need tuning again or not (I thought not). As I found when Michael played my piano last summer, it is always helpful to hear one’s instrument being played really well by someone else – because you hear it in a different way if you sit back from it and listen for pleasure, instead of listening to yourself. I wish I had been able to stay longer: Michael was working on a piano reduction of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, and the extract he played for me was rather wonderful. But I knew if we got talking – and playing! – I could be there until dinner time, and unfortunately, I had to get home for my appointment with one of Liszt’s Années. But it’s lovely to know that the piano is there when I want to play it and that old friends will welcome me into their home, and listen to me play with pleasure, while also offering useful, constructive criticism. When my Diploma programme is finalised, I shall look forward to playing it for Michael – and others, of course….