“One should only write piano music for the Bechstein”
This week I finally took delivery of my Bechstein grand piano, a 1913 Model A. I had to wait four months before she could move in (and she is most definitely a “she”, because she is so pretty! And a friend named her “Bechy” in advance of her arrival), because of building work in my home. As the “due date” drew nearer, I put a large Indian rug down in the space where Bechy would be going and began to visualise my remodelled and redecorated living room with a 6′ grand piano in it.
I suppose every pianist dreams of owning a grand piano. It has certainly been a long-held wish of mine (along with being able to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op 110 – not such a pipe dream any more now that I have started a serious study of this work). I used to gaze longingly into the window of the Steinway showroom on Marylebone Lane on my way to the Wigmore Hall, but for a long time I never imagined I would ever be able to afford a grand, nor fit one into my home. But when I passed my ATCL with Distinction I began to think about the possibility of owning a grand piano as I felt my upright was limiting. I started looking at modern grands: at the more affordable end of the market, nearly all of these are now made in the Far East, with varying degrees of quality. A friend recommended sticking with what I knew and purchasing a Yamaha, but I began to crave a warmer, more “European” sound. My tuner knew I was on the hunt for a grand and began to make excited plans for us to attend the London Piano Auctions at Conway Hall but I was wary about purchasing a piano at auction, even with my knowledgeable and experienced tuner to help and advise me. And then my tuner mentioned an old Bechstein which had come into his workshop for restoration. He urged me to come and try it, praising its range of sound – “like a string quartet, or a choir!” – and its superior condition, despite its age. In the end, I weakened, and on a cold afternoon in late March, after a sushi lunch on Clerkenwell Road with my husband, I played the piano in Rolf’s workshop. And I knew it was the piano I had to buy. We retired to a small cafe over the road with Rolf’s business partner Klaus, and there, over mugs of tea and Portuguese custard tarts, the deal was sealed. On the bus back to Waterloo, I texted my husband “I’ve bought a grand piano!”. He replied “have you got it with you, on the bus?!”.
There followed several months of getting the money together to pay the for piano. My husband generously (foolishly?!) agreed to give me the equivalent of what he would have spent on a mountain bike (a not inconsiderable sum, as it turned out!), and the person for whom I work on Mondays as a secretary and companion, very kindly made a contribution to the “grand piano fund”. On 1st August 2013, the piano was mine. She arrived at my house on 6th August.
The C Bechstein Pianofortefabrik AG was established in 1853 in Berlin. Prior to setting up the factory, Carl Bechstein studied and work in France and England as a piano craftsman, making pianos for other people. When he established his own factory, he was determined to manufacture pianos which could withstand the greater demands imposed on the instrument by the virtuosi of the day, such as Franz Liszt and Hans von Bulow (who gave the first public performance on a Bechstein, performing Liszt’s Sonata in B minor). The pianos were endorsed by both Liszt and von Bulow, and by the 1870s were staples in many concert halls and private houses. Together with Bluthner and Steinway, Bechstein was, and remains today, a pre-eminent manufacturer of superior-quality pianos.
In 1885, Bechstein opened a branch in London, which grew to be the largest branch and dealership in western Europe, and on 31st May 1901, Bechstein Hall, built at a cost of £100,000, opened next to the company’s showroom on London’s Wigmore Street. Bechstein Hall was built to provide London with a venue that was impressive yet intimate for recitals of chamber music. With near-perfect acoustics, the hall quickly became celebrated across Europe and featured many of the great artists of the 20th century. The pianos for the hall were supplied from the adjacent Bechstein showroom.
The company suffered huge property losses in London, Paris and St Petersburg during the First World War; this and rampant anti-German sentiment forced the closure of the London showroom. Following the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act in 1916, the British arm of the company was wound-up,and all Bechstein property, including the concert hall and showrooms full of pianos, were seized as “enemy property”. In 1917, the concert hall reopened, renamed Wigmore Hall, and the pianos from the next door showroom were confiscated and became the property of the new owners of the concert hall. Wigmore Hall remains London’s top venue for chamber music and solo recitals, but today its pianos are supplied and maintained by Steinway.
Bechstein pianos are still manufactured in Germany, under the ownership of Karl Schulze, a German entrepreneur and master piano maker. Bechstein pianos have been favoured by some of the greatest concert pianists and recording artists, including Leonard Bernstein, Wilhelm Kempff, Dinu Lipatti, Shura Cherkassy, Sviatoslav Richter, Oscar Peterson and Tatiana Nikolayeva.
I feel privileged to own such a beautiful instrument, and one which has such a fine pedigree. From the opening measures of Debussy’s Prelude Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, it was obvious that the piano has a far greater range of tonal possibilities and colours than my modern Yamaha upright. And when a friend came to play the piano in the afternoon, and I was able to appreciate its voice from the sofa, even more was revealed about it. I am very much looking forward to getting to know the piano.
London Pianos – restoration, tuning, repairs, concert hire and removals