Guest post by Michael Johnson

“It’s important,” explains piano builder Wayne Stuart of Tumut, Australia, “to realize that we perceive sound not only through our ears but through all of our body.” That’s how the Big Beleura, his new 108-key concert grand, gets to you.

Nine-Octave-Piano-fromabove

At the recent world première of the instrument, composer Alan Griffiths had rescored one of his pieces to better exploit the extended range of the keyboard, and pianist Nicholas Young had to play part of it standing up. As he reached inside to strum with his left hand, he played the octave melody on the upper keys, and the audience reportedly loved it.

Young says he finds the extended bass keys “incredibly sonorous even when not in use. They seem to contribute to the entire timbre. It pulses through one’s entire body like an organ pedal note.”

In this excerpt, Young is playing Griffiths’ “Cakewalk from Hell”. The deep bass takes over at 40 seconds :

Stuart has described his expanded keyboard concept in these terms: “Once players have tasted these fruits, they will never willingly return to 88 keys … Can you believe there are players and luddites who think this is crazy?”

And indeed, the premiere audience for the new model was a full house of “very excited”, but not crazy, music lovers who “listened to every note and sprang to their feet” at the climax, Stuart recalled during our week-long exchange of emails recently. Their attention never waned. “Folk were there to get everything they could from the experience.”

As director of Piano Australia Pty Ltd that presides over the manufacture of the Stuart & Sons brand, Stuart believes his new four-pedal expanded keyboard piano may show the way for the first radical advance in piano design in more than 130 years. Certain limited experiments aside (such as Bösendorfer’s Imperial and Daniel Barenboim’s disappointing “Barenboim”), piano architecture has been pretty much frozen since the 1880s.

Not surprisingly, some players and critics remain skeptical. I asked the respected critic and composer Melinda Bargreen of Seattle how excited she is – or isn’t — about the new piano. “I salute Wayne Stuart for pushing musical boundaries,” she wrote in an email exchange with me. “Experimental composers may enjoy tinkering with those extra 20 notes but they must face the fact that their performance opportunities will be extremely limited. The size, price and 1,420-pound weight will make these instruments inaccessible to nearly everyone outside of Australia.” (The Steinway Model D concert grand weighs a mere 990 pounds.)

108-key-stuart-piano-etched-5_1_origAnd yet the piano is off to a promising start. Beleura House and Garden villa and concert hall on Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, where the premiere was held, was already an attraction for music-lovers and is now boosted by the acquisition of the first Big Beleura.

The new piano will come to Europe and the United States only if a buyer will commission a new hand-crafted model. Stuart tells me it would go for about $250,000 and will require a full year to build. In the interim, YouTube videos and a forthcoming Griffiths recording will fill the gap for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Ashley Hribar, an Australian pianist of German-Slovenian parentage, has logged the most hours on the massive keyboard and praises the “amazing colour” of the piano. He tells me in an interview (see below) that the tone and the touch of the piano proved easier to master than he expected. “After about 30 minutes I felt quite at ease and everything became intuitive,” he said. The 1,492mm (4 feet 10 inch) wide keyboard would be a stretch for a child prodigy but average players seem unfazed. Long-limbed Hribar can reach both ends by leaning forward slightly.

Here he plays Jelly Roll Morton”s “Fingerbeaker”, stretching to reach the deep bass at 1;24.

A modest player and highly trained piano technician, Stuart has added ten notes to the bass and ten to the treble. He is now encouraging composers to come forward to experiment with it. The first to emerge is Brazilian pianist Artur Cimirro with a composition that takes in the full keyboard.

Premiere pianist Young reminds me there is a long tradition of imitating the organ when performing or arranging Bach (e.g. Busoni, von Bülow, Liszt), so the extended sonorities allow the pianist to come even closer to perfecting that illusion. “I imagine that works using extended technique, such as Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, would also be incredibly effective with the extended range, he said. “Duet arrangements of symphonies, like those that Liszt arranged of Beethoven, will sound fantastic.”

The additional keys, made possible in part by technical developments in string metallurgy, rarely carry melody but are effective for percussive effects and resonate when played together at an adjacent octave. I can confirm, after much research, that the effect of these extreme notes does indeed set the body tingling.

The limits of piano wire performance have been pushed by Stephen Paulello Piano Technologies, near Fontainebleau in France, at Stuart’s urging. A super-strong wire suitable for extreme treble keys was first developed in 2012 and toughened up just a year ago to enable the 108-key range.

As new repertoire for the instrument emerges, other works are being amended and adapted to incorporate the highs and lows. Griffiths says he was pleased to hear the “visceral energy” of the deep growling bass with percussive left-hand chord clusters. In his adaptations, he was after an “unworldly sound — primal even — to do what no other piano can do.”

Hribar is also rearranging some of his repertoire, including his own Paganini Variations and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz Nr 1. “I am hoping many other composers will continue to write for the expanded keyboard,” says Hribar.

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An edited transcript of email exchanges with pianist Ashley Hribar follows:

How intimidating was it to approach the instrument for the first time and look at 108 keys?

People often say to me, “You must need long arms”, etc. In fact, physically, I don’t find the extra 20 keys make a huge difference. It’s probably more psychological, especially when you hear the number 108 as opposed to 88. One simply needs to extend the arms slightly further or lean a bit to either side. Playing the notes simultaneously on either end, which one rarely does on traditional pianos, does require one to move the head closer to the keyboard. This is no issue for my arm span, but it may be for smaller people.

Did you need a few hours to adapt to the touch and the sound?

It wasn’t so daunting. I had previous experience with the 102-key Stuart & Sons piano. Playing the Brahms Cello Sonata (F Major) was a little scary at first because I had to re-coordinate, sometimes needing a split second to reach octaves in the bass. After about 30 minutes, I felt quite at ease and everything became intuitive.

Did you need adjustment of your sensibilities to appreciate the growling bass notes or the tinkly uppermost register?

Yes, pianists need to adjust to each new brand of piano. My biggest adjustment to this piano has been with physical coordination and adapting a slightly different visual approach to the extra notes. This opening of a new sound world in colour and depth have been inspiring indeed. I’ve had a lot of experience with experimental new music and improvisation and so having access to such an instrument is a true blessing.

Do you find these additional keys suited more to enhancing chords rather than carrying melody?

Yes. The human ear has difficulty distinguishing these extremes of register, especially the last few notes on each end. So, playing melodies in this range can be challenging. From a compositional perspective today, this would depend on one’s approach to melody and something very new. But interestingly, the brain does compensate well by imagining the sound of these notes, especially when playing chromatic scales or broken chords toward these extremes. I think the piano balances and blends the sound, continuing from the traditional range in a way one would imagine.

This is starting to sound like the extremes reached by pipe organs in a grand cathedral.

Yes, much like the pipe organ, particularly those reaching 8 Hz (lowest organ note) and the high register (beyond 8,000 Hz), the listener feels the sound rather than distinguishing the notes. Transferring this to the acoustic piano, the sound of the pipe organ at this range is much different than the range of the Stuart & Sons. Nonetheless, these vibrations give an unexpected dimension to sound, adding depth and warmth to the lower registers and brilliance in the high registers.

Give us an example of improvisation that has worked well.

When appropriate, I add the lower bass notes to enhance the effect of the music. Debussy’s Claire de Lune is an example where at bar 15 and 17 I add the lower E-flat. When playing this note extra soft (ppp), you can feel the vibrations of this note as well as its overtones. This, in combination with the original notes creates an amazing colour.

What kind of repertoire is available and what is in preparation?

Brazilian pianist Artur Cimirro was the first person to write for the 108 key piano. Alan Griffiths has been rearranging and writing wonderful new works for the ‘Big Beleura’ (the 108 key Stuart) in his recent CD Rare View. As for myself, I have been rearranging some of my own compositions, such as my Paganini Variations and adapting traditional works like the Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz Nr 1. Other works of interest here originally written for 102 keys include Black Opal (2000) by Alex Mitchell and various pieces by Fabien Touchard, Charly Mandon and Stéphane Delplace written especially for the French 102 key piano built by Stephen Paulello.

Some composers invited improvisation. Aren’t they a good starting point?

Yes, virtuosic piano music, particularly of the romantic era with composers like Liszt, Alkan and others, show many examples where experimentation is implied. That is, the performer could in some cases use the score more or less as a guide. The lesser-known Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt are typical examples where we are left with bare bones on the page, leaving space between the notes to fill out harmonies, add arpeggios, extra notes or completely re-invent passages. These works and many others are perfect opportunities for pianists to use 108 keys.

The Liszt sounds appropriate for the broader sound spectrum.

True, and I have been reimagining Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1, originally an orchestral work and later arranged for piano by the composer. The Peters edition includes alternative passages, suggesting experimentation or implementing personalised embellishments, for example the dazzling flourishes in the right hand. Such deviations from the score were commonplace in the 19th Century, especially with pianists of the golden age like Rachmaninov and Horowitz.

French composers like Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen experimented with rhythm and colour. Ravel writes the G sharp below the A1 in his Piano concerto for the Left Hand, and in Une barque sur l’océan (Mirrors) and Messiaen’s Par Lui tout a ete fait (Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus). Claire de Lune and many other works show how 108 keys could be used.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Other versions of this article appeared in International Piano magazine and on http://www.factsandarts.com

 

World-renowned Hungarian pianist Gergely Bogányi is the ambitious innovator behind a project to create a completely new instrument, and the focus of the revolutionary Bogányi piano is on the clearest, boldest, premium quality sound possible.

Gergely Bogány kindly completed my Meet the Artist questionnaire in which he discusses his motivation for designing a new piano, and his many other influences and inspirations.

(© Zengafons 2015)
(© Zengafons 2015)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I grew up in a very musical family.  We were always listening to music. Mostly Bach, as my father played the organ.  He was the leader of several choruses at the time, and the singers were always coming round to our house to rehearse. My mother plays and teaches the piano and she taught me too. My siblings and I grew to love music very much thanks to our parents.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Liszt! And, of course, Chopin. Later on, I got to know the music of Dohnanyi, the genius Hungarian composer and pianist. There aren’t many recordings of him playing, but still I can say that it inspired me very much. By listening to LP recordings when I was studying some 15 years ago, I discovered the music and piano playing of musicians like Rachmaninov and Cortot.   As a pianist, Rachmaninov made a deep impression and the musical interpretations of Alfred Cortot are the pinnacle.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Two answers: every concert is the greatest challenge, because each time I seek to transmit a message, as communication is key to be a performer, and each time, we have to manage a different piano, for good or bad, and get the best out of it.  This is where my obsession with creating my own idea of a “perfect” piano came from and the subsequent development of the Bogány Piano.

Technically speaking, my greatest challenge took place in 2010 at the Palace of Arts in Budapest when I performed every piano work that Chopin composed in a marathon over two days with ten recitals. One recital “dose” of his beautiful and powerful music just didn’t feel enough.  I was craving more and also imagined that audiences felt the same way too.  I hope that they went away with a great appreciation of his music after 10 doses.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Of about 20 recordings, I can’t single out any one CD in particular, but I can say that there are moments and tracks, which I feel are acceptable. One of my proudest recording moments was recording the full Chopin marathon for live broadcast to celebrate the composer’s 200th anniversary.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I enjoy playing romantic repertoire as much as playing Mozart.  I don’t specialise in performing the work of any particular composer, but if I would have to pick one, I would say Liszt. He has set an example to me both personally and musically.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I simply choose to play what I like.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

As a performer, I believe that we need to be able and prepared the transmit the music’s message in any condition. If a concert hall enables and supports this, then I am happy. It’s difficult to single out one specific favourite venue, as fortunately there are many excellent concert venues. However, I would like to point out the Great Hall of the Liszt Academy, not because of its ultimate superiority, but because the venue contains the successful combination of both excellent acoustics as well as its beauty. It has been created by instinct and not based on factual calculations.

What do you consider to be most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I would like to advise future musicians to concentrate on exploring the music in great depth and forget about all the hype about building a career.

What was the main motivation for designing a new piano?

Having performed for years in the world’s most renewed concert halls, I played with a sound I had in mind, that was different from what I heard when I was playing. My search to look for a more beautiful, harmonious and flowing sound, was the motivation to start experimenting with the sound board on my own piano and to bridge the gap between the sound in my head and the sound I was actually hearing.

What makes this new instrument unique and special?

The Bogányi Piano looks like a traditional piano in a special new design, but the technical details and use of modern materials makes it unique. The sound-board is made of multi-layered carbon-fibre with a rippled surface that is sprung and detached from the piano frame. Making use of that material makes the piano resistant to exterior conditions like heat, humidity, cold, damp and dryness and prevent the soundboard from breakage. More importantly, the sound of the piano is very powerful and round, which is acoustically supported by the design of two legs (instead of normally three) that act as a reflector to enhance the sound towards the audience.

11-boganyi-piano©jarailaszlo

Where would you like to be in 1 years’ time?

I would like to come across the Bogányi piano in unexpected places across the globe.

What is your present state of mind?

I always try to be humble, intelligible and very passionate. That is what I am aiming for.

The Boganyi Piano

Gergely Bogányi is a born musician, from a musical Hungarian family. His brilliant technique, coupled with a deeply expressed, artistic interpretation has made him an outstanding international performer. Born in Vác, Hungary, he began playing the piano at the age of four. He continued his studies at the Liszt Academy in Budapest with László Baranyay. He also studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with Professor Matti Raekallio, and at the university of Indiana in Bloomington with Professor György Sebök.

He participated in several master classes by Annie Fischer and Ferenc Rados. Among his professors he fondly remembers Annie Fischer who made a deep impression upon his art. She instructed him regularly and was a cherished mentor until her death.

From a young age, Gergely Bogányi has had success in several national and international competitions. He won a prize at the national piano competition in Nyíregyháza at the age of six, and three years later he won top prize there. 

In Helsinki he was a three-time winner of the Finnish radio “Helmi Vesa Competition.” He won first prizes in both the Chopin and the Mozart competitions in Budapest in 1993, and Indiana University’s music competition in 1994. In 1996 he earned the gold Medal at the “International Franz

Liszt Competition” in Budapest, one of the most distinguished piano competitions in the world.At the exceptionally young age of 22, Gergely Bogányi was appointed a citizen of honor in his native town of Vác. In 2000 he was awarded the “Liszt Prize” by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Hungary. In 2002 he was also presented the “Cross of Merit of the White Rose” of Finland by the President of the Finnish Republic. In 2004 he received the “Kossuth Prize” from the President of the Hungarian Republic, the highest artistic award of his native country. In November 2010 he was awarded a unique “Art Citizenship/ Chopin year” passport by the Polish government.