In 1901 a new concert hall opened in the West End, just north of Oxford Street. Small and intimate, it boasted superb acoustics, unprecedented comfort, and scheduled two hundred concerts a year, as London’s concert-going populace, benefitting from a revolution in entertainment and leisure, flocked to see Frank Merrick and Leopold Godowsky, Artur Schnabel, Chopin specialist Vladimir de Pachmann, and ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’, the Venezuelan lady pianist Teresa Careno.
This was Bechstein Hall, owned by the C Bechstein piano manufacturer whose London showroom and retail outlet was next door on Wigmore Street.
The C. Bechstein piano factory was founded on 1 October 1853 by Carl Bechstein who had studied and worked in France and England as a piano craftsman, before he became an independent piano maker. He set out to build a piano able to withstand the demands place upon the instrument by the virtuosi of the time, such as Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s son-in-law, Hans von Bulow, gave the first public performance on a Bechstein grand piano in 1857. Along with Steinway & Sons and Bluthner, Bechstein became one of the world’s pre-eminent piano makers. Bechstein pianos were praised for their colourful tonal palette, warm sound and delicate nuances. Pianists and composers who favoured Bechstein’s pianos include Liszt, Brahms, Scriabin and Debussy.
In 1916 Bechstein Hall closed, its German owners unable to sustain the business during the First War, and in 1917 the hall reopened with its current name – Wigmore Hall. Since its opening, the hall, in both its incarnations, has enjoyed a reputation for world class chamber music and it attracts the finest international pianists.
When I first “met” and played my 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano, in the north London workshop of my piano tuner in March 2013, I knew I had to own this instrument. Not only for its smooth touch, warm, mellow tone, rich bass, sweet singing treble, and beautiful rosewood case, but also for its association with my favourite London concert venue – Wigmore Hall. It was, and remains, a serendipitous meeting, and it is quite possible that my piano was sold from the Wigmore Street showroom.
Bellies, Bass-lines and Bottoms
While thinking of something to write for the Pianist’s Alphabet series, I considered various parts of the piano that I would like to describe and was particularly taken with the belly. It’s not often that I hear pianists talk of the instrument’s belly, but it’s sound-board. The sound-board is arguably the most important part of the instrument, spanning the surface area of the casing (well, the majority of it) and being responsible for the instrument’s personal tonal quality and capability. Steinway & Sons have even created the ‘Diaphragmatic Soundboard’ which they liken to a diaphragm by tapering the thickness of the wood to maximise the soundboard’s efficiency. Here’s a link: http://www.steinway.com/news/articles/the-diaphragmatic-soundboard-the-heart-of-the-steinway-tone-color-and-richness/
But, I prefer the word ‘belly’! Belly = guts, where all the important stuff happens. If the belly of the piano is in perfect working order and designed sympathetically, then the resulting sound is vital, vibrant, and capable of huge tonal and dynamic range. Isn’t it the same with people?!
As for bass-lines, I’m a sucker for bass-lines, and it’s these that we feel most through our bellies. One of the most satisfying things to play and listen to is a descending bass-line, often with an ascending melody, when the tension is building and passions fly, often causing both players and listeners to feel a knot in the stomach and great excitement before the final arrival or release in the music. Ecstasy!! (This happens so many times in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, or more gradually in the big climax in ‘Ondine’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.)
The bass-line underpins everything; it supports the melody and provides the foundation upon which harmony can develop, grounding both player and listener alike. To neglect a bass-line is tantamount to creating a pizza with sumptuous toppings, but paying no attention to the dough! (Apologies for the food analogy but it’s the first thing I think of when searching for parallels.)
Now, bottoms. I’ve already mentioned guts and foundations, but how can any of this happen without being firmly planted? With so much energy being propelled forward towards the instrument, a rooted bum is essential. Great Kung-Fu masters have always spoken of opposing forces increasing power and strength. (Yin and Yang.) If we are to apply this to piano playing, then in order to play to maximum power with minimum effort, as much attention needs to go down through the stool and in to the floor as it does through the thorax, arms, fingers and, ultimately, belly.
So to summarise, pay attention to the bass-line, feel firmly planted and when the music requires it, release both down into the floor and out through the piano, feeling it in your very core. When the piano responds accordingly and its belly rumbles, the music will come alive and everyone will be fulfilled.