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….

Rather than write an exhaustive summary of my piano lesson today, I am simply going to note the things I discussed and worked on with my teacher. While the notes are specific to the music I am working on currently (the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, BWV 830, and the ‘Prelude’ from Debussy’s Pour le Piano), they have a general relevance, and I hope readers will find them useful. This post is also an opportunity for me to review, while writing, my piano lesson and what I need to focus on in the coming weeks.

We began with the Bach (Partita No.6). This piece is intended for my Diploma recital, but learning it has also reminded me of how satisfying it is to play Bach. His music is intricate, textural and cerebral, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece, having not played any Bach seriously since I left school (I am ashamed to admit!).

Overall – well played, in some places “beautifully played”, a nice sense of grandeur in the arpeggiated figures in the opening and closing sections, some good three-part playing where I’ve clearly analysed the structure of the fugue. Piece needs to be neatened up, with more colour and shape. Listen to the Chromatic Fantasia for reference as this piece shares some similar motifs. Needs more “flourish” in places. Be sure to maintain the sense of a steady pulse throughout. Do not use the pedal as a cover for sections which are difficult or less secure.

mm. 1 & 2 (and all similar measures): achieve a greater sense of grandeur and flourish through the arpeggiated figures. Keep dotted figure legato and maintain sense of forward movement into crotchets. Avoid “chunky” hands and “notey” sound through these sections. Try to move smoothly between chords with a horizontal motion.

mm. 3-6 (and all similar measures): try for “swirling” motion between the hands, almost a sense of “one hand playing”. Keep these sections lighter (as a contrast to opening measures). Distinct “toccare” feel. Slight tenuto on first note of each figure, for example, in mm. 15-16 to emphasise the chromaticism.

Take difficult or insecure bars in the Fugue and practice them slowly, in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne. As I found in my lesson, this technique enables the hands to relax. The more difficult bars should sound unforced: resist pushing into the keys in these sections, especially in more tricky three-part sections.

Semi-quaver passage work: relax the hands, again to achieve unforced sound.

Debussy: ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano – This piece sits rather well with the Bach Toccata as it is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents (specifically Couperin, rather than Bach), and has very distinct “toccata” elements in its constant forward motion and the “divine arabesque of Bach”. It also contains “antagonistic” elements and oppositions of extremes, such as dynamic or colour. Despite these apparently “serious”, Baroque features, there is a delightful playfulness in this piece.

mm. 1-42 – as in the Bach Toccata, think about shared movement and “swirling” between the hands, almost a sense of the hands “playing” with each other.

mm. 42-54 – keep wrists, forearms and elbows bouncy through these big chords. Practise mf, and gradually use back to increase sound. Glissandos – don’t hang around!

mm. 55-56 – Whole tone scale: try and achieve “harp” sound, hands drawn rapidly across strings, with sweeping movement. Practice the runs in groups of 8 notes (4 per hand).

mm. 57-64 – RH “shake”, likewise from m. 69 in LH. Keep fingers “playful” through this section.

Contrary motion scale preceding Cadenza – again, keep hands light, nimble and playful. Practise RH measures slowly

Cadenza – runs should be “kaleidoscopic”, like a “harp”, fingers swept across the keys.

Final 6 bars – keep in Tempo primo. Very grand. These big chords should set up the silence for the sublime opening of the ‘Sarabande’.

Overall, this piece needs to remain playful, both technically and musically.