Piano

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!

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The author’s 1913 Bechstein model A

 

 

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.

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Frances Wilson

 

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.

Nadine André

http://nadineandre.com

http://www.trifarious.com