a large keyboard musical instrument with a wooden case enclosing a soundboard and metal strings, which are struck by hammers when the keys are depressed

The pianist Ivo Pogorelich is right: the piano is “a piece of furniture”. Not simply a musical instrument, it’s fine furniture, often the most expensive piece in a home and the focal point of whatever room it’s in. Browse through glossy interiors magazines, Pinterest or sites like Houzz and you will find beautiful grand pianos in beautiful settings, the instrument not intended to be played, but to bring elegance, class and grandeur to a room. My 1913 Bechstein A, bought for a song (relatively-speaking), the most I could afford at the time, is a thing of beauty with a polished rosewood case, turned legs and a fretwork music desk. Visitors to the house gasp in admiration when I throw open the door to my office-cum-music room and there she crouches in burnished antique splendour.

Your wonderful Bechstein has afforded me great joy.
Sviatoslav Richter

While upright pianos were two-a-penny in Victorian and Edwardian homes, as ubiquitous as the smart tv is today, the grand piano has always been a status symbol. A Picasso on the wall and a Steinway on the floor, the grand piano is an indicator of wealth and cultural cachet, for the grandest, most desirable pianos are as sleek, highly-engineered and expensive as a Maserati, owned, but not necessarily played, by those who value image and exclusivity above ultimate usability

The piano is also a machine, a miracle of invention, this contraption of metal, wood and wires capable of sustaining twenty-two tons of tension on its strings. Despite its industrial, apparently inaminate, construction, one is regularly reminded that this instrument is, like a violin or clarinet, created from materials which were once living: the slightest fluctuation in humidity will send my antique Bechstein into a stroppy fit of out-of-tune-ness as wood and ivory contract and expand.

You become elated, invigorated, and inspired….all through something built by a factory

– Menahem Pressler

The piano is a machine but it usually has soul, and a history too….. My Bechstein is Edwardian drawing rooms, overstuffed sofas, looking glasses, brocade and lace. It might have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom on Wigmore Street, next to Bechstein – now Wigmore – Hall, in that golden year when a carefree generation was teetering on the abyss of the First World War. A few years ago, I played a Steinway D with a special heritage. Formerly owned by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, it had been played by Sviatoslav Richter and Daniel Barenboim, amongst others – “and now you are playing it!” said its owner, for whose music society I was performing. I’ve also played a square piano owned and autographed by Edward Elgar, and a Pleyel said to have been played by Chopin, but one can invest too much in these associations, believing that the spirit of former owners and players haunts the keys and strings, and can influence the player. In fact, it is whoever is playing the piano now which sparks the soul of the instrument and brings it to life in sound.

As a pianist, one has a special relationship with the instrument one plays most often (usually the piano one owns), but unlike other instrumentalists, the pianist cannot carry his/her own instrument to concerts (though in the old days concert artists might travel with their piano, taking it across the ocean to a concert at Carnegie Hall, New York). Thus, while it is true that most concert instruments are pretty much the same across the international venues and halls, one must also be adaptable or lower one’s expectations – not all pianos as are well looked after and cossetted as a concert Steinway…..In such situations, a true professional will accept the situation and work with the instrument they are given. 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.

The piano ceases to be a piece of furniture, or a machine, when it is played. The player brings it to life, and the great thing about the piano is that even the most novice player can get a pleasant sound out of it (unlike the violin for which students (and their long-suffering parents and teachers) must endure years of scraping and screeching before a beautiful sound is mastered).

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The sound the pianist produces is determined by touch, by the finger’s contact with key. We call this “attack”, a curious descriptive word which suggests an aggressive connection with the instrument, when in fact the type of touch employed is often subtle, controlled, refined. Every pianist has a personal sound associated with their individual touch. Other instrumentalists, and physicists, may scoff at this, claiming that the only factor that determines the tone intensity and timbre is the speed of the hammer hitting the piano string, but studies have demonstrated that the subtleties of individual touch do influence timbre and quality of sound: pianists use a vast palette of timbral nuances to colour their performances and, importantly, to create a distinctly personal sound. Why else do we seek out the performances of certain pianists – Cortot, Lipatti, Gould, Lupu, Hough, Uchida – and can identify these pianists from a blind listening?


Arm weight, wrist flexibility and suppleness, lack of bodily tension – all these effect the sound, the mood and interpretation of every note and passage. A tense body creates a tense sound, for the music one produces inevitably imitates the state of the body. And the body responds to the mood of the music too: during passages of raging fury (Beethoven at his most declamatory), the heartbeat quickens and the body tenses.

A kind of synaesthesia comes into play (forgive the pun) in the most expressive and compelling performances. Timbre, an essential factor in the expressivity of performance, combined with touch and the pianist’s own temperament, their musicianship and intelligence – that is where the true magic occurs, a potent reminder that the production of sound is not simply mechanical nor technical. This is the great power of the pianist – to conjure sounds, and images, from that machine, that box of wood and wires, that piece of furniture.

And when the music is over, the lid is closed, and the piano returns to its somnolent position, silently crouching in a corner of the room, once again a piece of furniture.

Oh, but what a marvellous, magical piece of furniture!

The author’s 1913 Bechstein model A



“One should only write piano music for the Bechstein”

Claude Debussy

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.

Bechstein piano showroom on London’s Wigmore Street.

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.

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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