“Your wonderful Bechstein has afforded me great joy.”
I have recently sold my Yamaha upright piano, to fund the purchase of a 1913 Bechstein grand. Naturally, I am very much looking forward to becoming the owner of a grand piano and to exploring the wider range of possibilities afforded by a larger instrument (and a very beautiful one too), but I can’t help but feel more than a twinge of sadness to be saying farewell to my trusty upright. Purchased brand new from Chappell of Bond Street in 2007, six months after I set up my piano teaching practice, the piano has given me many hours of pleasure (and quite a few hours of frustration too!), and has seen my students through their lessons. It has brought exam success, for my students and myself, and has acted as a form of therapy, a companion and a much-loved piece of furniture.
Pianists have a curious relationship with pianos: unlike other musicians, who take their own instrument with them wherever they play, the pianist is expected to arrive at the venue and accept the instrument provided. Of course, top class concert instruments in venues such as Wigmore or Carnegie Halls are beautifully set up, and the soloist will spend some time with the technician before the concert discussing any adjustments that need to be made. The tuners and technicians who work with concert artists and instruments are highly skilled people, sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of instrument and performer. Once upon a time, in the days before air travel, the pianist might travel by ship or by train with his own instrument. There is some lovely footage in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing the great man selecting a grand piano at the Yamaha showroom in New York ahead of a performance. These days such executive treatment is largely afforded only to the greatest. The pianist Gary Graffman, in his book I Really Should be Practising, relates an occasion where he arrived at a concert to find that one of the notes on the piano when depressed sounded with all the subtlety of a gunshot: to remedy this, Graffman simply replaced the action of that note with one seldom-used from the top of the register.
Of course, we grow attached to and familiar with the piano which we play most regularly, usually the one we own and play at home. It took me awhile to really get used to my piano. It has quite a stiff action and a very bright tone (I had it voiced twice to make it more mellow), and I know there will be a “settling in” period as I get to know my Bechstein. I have played a few pianos in my time and I can remember something about nearly all of them. A friend has a lovely Steinway B which I play fairly regularly. The first time I played it was like driving a Porsche after pottering around in a Ford Fiesta. That is not to say it is an “easy” piano to play: sure, it is beautifully set up and it feels very well-made and finely engineered, but it is quirky too, and, just as when driving a sports car, one needs to be alert to its particular traits. Probably the most wonderful piano I have played is the Model D in Steinway Hall in central London: not just its size, but also the feel of it. The local music society, where I occasionally perform, has a very old Steinway (at least 100 years old) which is rather eccentric: rattly and squeaky keys and a tendency to wobble alarmingly when the pedals are applied. Perhaps the worst was the Edwardian upright (complete with decorative candelabra) at the old people’s centre where I used to play at lunchtimes. In fact, it didn’t matter because the music gave so much pleasure to the very elderly audience.
In his memoirs, Richter describes playing on indifferent school pianos in the Russian provinces during the war, forcing him to think beyond the instrument. The sound of the piano could not be changed but through his extraordinary imaginative powers, he could draw the audience along with him and take them to another place, to make them focus on higher things. This has to be our aim, as pianists, when confronted with an indifferent instrument, or one not exactly to our liking. We play, and the best we can hope is that we capture the audience’s attention and imagination, and get beyond ourselves and our ego to convey the meaning and emotion in the music.