“Your wonderful Bechstein has afforded me great joy.”

Sviatoslav Richter

I have recently sold my Yamaha upright piano, to fund the purchase of a 1913 Bechstein grand. Naturally, I am very much looking forward to becoming the owner of a grand piano and to exploring the wider range of possibilities afforded by a larger instrument (and a very beautiful one too), but I can’t help but feel more than a twinge of sadness to be saying farewell to my trusty upright. Purchased brand new from Chappell of Bond Street in 2007, six months after I set up my piano teaching practice, the piano has given me many hours of pleasure (and quite a few hours of frustration too!), and has seen my students through their lessons. It has brought exam success, for my students and myself, and has acted as a form of therapy, a companion and a much-loved piece of furniture.

Pianists have a curious relationship with pianos: unlike other musicians, who take their own instrument with them wherever they play, the pianist is expected to arrive at the venue and accept the instrument provided. Of course, top class concert instruments in venues such as Wigmore or Carnegie Halls are beautifully set up, and the soloist will spend some time with the technician before the concert discussing any adjustments that need to be made. The tuners and technicians who work with concert artists and instruments are highly skilled people, sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of instrument and performer. Once upon a time, in the days before air travel, the pianist might travel by ship or by train with his own instrument. There is some lovely footage in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing the great man selecting a grand piano at the Yamaha showroom in New York ahead of a performance. These days such executive treatment is largely afforded only to the greatest. 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.

Of course, we grow attached to and familiar with the piano which we play most regularly, usually the one we own and play at home. It took me awhile to really get used to my piano. It has quite a stiff action and a very bright tone (I had it voiced twice to make it more mellow), and I know there will be a “settling in” period as I get to know my Bechstein. I have played a few pianos in my time and I can remember something about nearly all of them. A friend has a lovely Steinway B which I play fairly regularly. The first time I played it was like driving a Porsche after pottering around in a Ford Fiesta. That is not to say it is an “easy” piano to play: sure, it is beautifully set up and it feels very well-made and finely engineered, but it is quirky too, and, just as when driving a sports car, one needs to be alert to its particular traits. Probably the most wonderful piano I have played is the Model D in Steinway Hall in central London: not just its size, but also the feel of it. The local music society, where I occasionally perform, has a very old Steinway (at least 100 years old) which is rather eccentric: rattly and squeaky keys and a tendency to wobble alarmingly when the pedals are applied. Perhaps the worst was the Edwardian upright (complete with decorative candelabra) at the old people’s centre where I used to play at lunchtimes. In fact, it didn’t matter because the music gave so much pleasure to the very elderly audience.

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)

In his memoirs, Richter describes playing on indifferent school pianos in the Russian provinces during the war, forcing him to think beyond the instrument. The sound of the piano could not be changed but through his extraordinary imaginative powers, he could draw the audience along with him and take them to another place, to make them focus on higher things. This has to be our aim, as pianists, when confronted with an indifferent instrument, or one not exactly to our liking. We play, and the best we can hope is that we capture the audience’s attention and imagination, and get beyond ourselves and our ego to convey the meaning and emotion in the music.

Updated: 2 June 2014. Today I received an email from the UK agent for Fazioli Pianos in response to this post. He took issue with a number of points and asked me to correct some factual errors and remove some phrases which were deemed “offensive”. For the sake of clarification, his comments are highlighted in red.

“The piano was parked across the room like a sleek, black limousine. It occupied nearly a third of the room and gleamed expensively in the light of the chandeliers. It was a Fazioli, the most expensive piano in the world, beautifully, exquisitely crafted, a triumph of design and modern piano technology. He eyed it suspiciously, and the vast, shining minotaur glared back at him, challenging him: “Tocchilo se osate. Touch me, if you dare”, it seemed to say. He had never played a Fazioli before; indeed, had never even been close to one, and, until now, never had any inclination to try one. Its reputation went before it: some people raved about its crystal clear tone quality, that once played, one would never want another piano, ever…. Others that it was just over-engineered Italian histrionics; nothing more than a show-piece, an instrument without heritage or integrity. A piano for the Ferrari owner who valued image and exclusivity above ultimate usability……..

……the sound was amazing, flooding the large room with an absolute purity and luminescence he had not encountered before in a piano. A sound of effortless clarity and depth. The treble was brightly translucent, the middle register had a viola-like mellowness, the bass enormous. The further down the register he went, the notes began to blossom, then growl, now swelling, like an organ, the sound rising from the great belly of the instrument and pouring into the elegant music room. The tone was brilliant and rich, right across the entire register, the touch perfectly even, and Stephen realised that he had never before, not even on the most impeccably set up concert Steinway, played an action that had better control. There was no forgiving middle ground in between with this instrument. It would, he knew, be impossible to conceal the slightest unevenness of touch or rhythm. There would be nowhere to hide….”

Like the protagonist of my novel, I’d never played a Fazioli – until now – though I’d heard it in concert, at the Wigmore and the Royal Festival Hall, on both occasions played by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. And on both occasions, I disliked the piano’s sound. In the relatively intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall, the Fazioli concert grand, which, at just over 3 metres, is even larger than a full-size Steinway Model D, was just too big. Its treble was strident, its bass booming. It dominated the music (Bach and Chopin) more than it should have done. Even in a hall as big as RFH, the voice of the Fazioli was still too big. (A pianist (who likes Fazioli) argued with me that it was not the piano, but the pianist who was responsible for the sound.)

The piano in question was not a 308cm but 278cm. FYI as yet no 308’s have come into the UK

 

The debate continues, and Fazioli, like Marmite, divides opinion. I decided the only way to settle the debate in my own mind was to try a Fazioli myself. As it happens, Jaques Samuels Pianos, on London’s Edgware Road, is an agent for Fazioli in the UK; even better, they have a Fazioli in one of their rehearsal rooms at the moment.

Fazioli is not a long-established piano maker, like Steinway or Bosendorfer. The company was founded in 1981, by Paolo Fazioli, a pianist and engineer, whose aim was to create the most beautiful, perfect and highly-crafted piano possible. The factory is located in the northeast of Italy, in a region famous for its ancient and prestigious tradition in woodworking. The soundboards of Fazioli pianos are made from red spruce from the Val de Fiemme (Antonio Stradivari used the same red spruce to produce his violins). Each Fazioli piano is hand made by a team of workers, and only around 100 pianos are produced each year.

130 are made annually

Paolo Fazioli’s family are furniture makers

Mr Fazioli obtained his doctorate in engineering in 1969. It was never his intention to enter a professional career as a pianist, nor did he do so, piano was always a passion and he achieved his diploma in 1971 two years after his engineering studies had ceased.

But he never lost interest in the piano and became increasingly dissatisfied to find that the pianos he played were not especially well made, neither mechanically nor musically, and he became convinced that he could do better. He consulted experts in acoustics, metal foundry, harmonics and woodworking; he did his research and silenced his detractors, and by 1980 Fazioli and his team had produced their first prototype. He now believes his pianos are the best. His overriding criteria are as follows

  • To produce grand and concert grand pianos exclusively, aiming for the highest quality with no concern for large production
  • Not to imitate any other existing pianos, rather to create an original sound
  • To hand-craft each piano individually using time honored traditional methods combined with the latest technological advances
  • To strive constantly to improve the piano by using cutting edge technology. [source: Wikipedia]

They are certainly the biggest and most expensive on the market today, and the demand for an instrument with greater power and richness to be used in larger concert halls inspired the creation of the F308 model, the longest piano available, of any brand, at 10 feet. Fazioli pianos are endorsed by a number of top international artists, including Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt and Louis Lortie.

I did not check to see which model was in the rehearsal room at JS Pianos, but it was not a monster, not by any means (I think it was a F183 model). A quick burst of Schubert’s E flat Impromptu confirmed what I’d read about the Fazioli’s action and touch: extremely even across the entire register, if a touch heavy for my liking. It felt “easy” to play, presumably because of the ultra-fine engineering in it, but one had the sense sometimes of playing at one remove from it. Difficult to explain, but my student, who played her exam pieces on it, remarked on this sensation as well. Listening to it, it had an incredibly rich bass, full-bodied and chocolatey. The middle registers were also very pleasing, with a smooth mellowness. But it was the upper register that bothered both of us. As a listener, it was just too bright; even when playing quietly, the sound was too much, and at one point, my student Sarah commented that it actually hurt her ears. (This was my experience when I heard Angela Hewitt play a Fazioli at the Wigmore; interestingly, the two friends who were with me on that occasion, and who are both hard of hearing, commented that the treble was too “strident”, brash even.)

The Rachmaninov G minor Étude-Tableaux was definitely more successful than the Bach D minor Concerto BWV974: the Rachmaninov dwells quite a lot in the lower registers, and the richness of the Fazioli’s bass voice made for a very atmospheric reading. I had to remind myself not to push the treble too much, even in the forte and mezzo-forte passages. The Liszt Sonetto 104 also came across well, again benefitting from the bass richness, but the Mozart Rondo in A minor K511 was less successful (admittedly, I was tired when I came to play it at the end of our session).

I am not sure I would want to own a Fazioli: it seemed almost too perfect for my liking, and so impeccably engineered that it actually came across as rather false. It was almost like the world’s best digital piano, and without a long heritage, like Steinway or Bechstein, it lacks integrity, in my view (maybe after Fazioli has been in production for 100 years, it will have gained that heritage). It’s really beautiful, but it has no soul. You don’t have to work too hard at it, to make it louder, or quieter: because of the way it is set up, it responds instantly to the touch. Strangely, this aspect of it irritated me: I like to feel I am “working” at the sound, but I don’t want a piano that it is just “raw sound”. Despite the hard acoustic of my piano room, even my little Yahama has a sweeter treble than the Fazioli, while my teacher’s Bechstein [actually a Blüthner] has the most mellifluously cantabile treble, a really lovely sound (if a rather floppy touch).

However, I am glad we had the opportunity to play a Fazioli, and it has certainly helped to inform my thoughts about what kind of grand piano I will choose when I come to buy one (hopefully next year).

For the purposes of fairness, I am also publishing the comments made in response to my personal opinion of the Fazioli I played:

Although this is your personal opinion it is far from the norm and as you yourself are not a professional pianist it does seem rather harsh. You may be interested to note that five of the six finalists at this year’s Rubinstein Competition chose Fazioli over Steinway. Four of the six switched to Fazioli after hearing it played by Ms Mazo in the semi-finals, clearly, as professionals, they hold a different view to you and none of  them described the piano as the ‘best digital piano’ (again with hindsight you may find this comment a little aggressive).  Further, at Wigmore Hall on Thursday evening, Francesco Piemontesi, told the Artistic Director John Gilhooly, and myself, that the Fazioli piano he had just performed on was the most beautiful piano he had ever played.

 

Jaques Samuels Pianos

Fazioli Pianoforti