2015 might well be remembered as the year of innovation in pianistic design, concept and sonority.
In January, Hungarian pianist Gergely Bogányi (who performed here in 2011) unveiled his “revolutionary”, “space-age”, “wonder” piano in Budapest.
And now, a much more high-profile musician Daniel Barenboim, Argentine pianist, conductor and humanitarian, has revealed his new, “radically different” piano, with his name also emblazoned across it.
The innovation in the Barenboim piano is in the installation of the strings. In a standard concert grand, they are placed diagonally, or “cross-strung”, with the bass strings crossing over the middle register and treble strings to create an “x”, so that the sound gets concentrated on the centre of the soundboard. The Barenboim piano has all the strings aligned straight and parallel, which is the secret of its superior sound. It also has a double bridge and horizontal soundboard veins.
The new instrument was launched and displayed to the media at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 26 May 2015. Barenboim then played the Schubert piano sonata cycle (spread out over four concert evenings) there on this instrument, of which there are currently only two in the world.
What prompted Barenboim to design such a piano? In an interview to the BBC, he says that it was after he had played on one of Franz Liszt’s pianos that had been restored in honour of the Liszt birth bicentenary in 2011.
“I was struck by the transparency and the independence of the notes.”
“When Liszt taught, he said to one of his students in Weimar, ‘If you play a chord of four notes, each one must have a different sound.’ And that you can do on this piano.”
“The clearly distinguishable voices and colour across its registers of Liszt’s piano inspired me to explore the possibility of combining these qualities with the power, looks, evenness of touch, stability of tuning and other technical advantages of the modern piano”, said Barenboim.
The new piano was developed along with Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene, and is supported by Steinway & Sons. Maene described the whole enterprise as “a dream come true.”
It is remarkable how both Bogányi and Barenboim have Franz Liszt in the narrative of the stimulus for their creation. Liszt took a great interest in developments in the piano and worked closely with leading manufacturers of the time.
The restored Liszt piano in Siena referred to by Barenboim was probably designed by Sebastien Érard (1752-1831), who built his first piano in 1777 and founded the piano manufacturing firm that bore his surname. In 1823, Érard developed a revolutionary “double escapement action” which allowed the same note to be sounded by repeatedly striking the relevant key without its having to return to its original position. This fascinated a teenage Liszt when he visited Paris, and the Érard family in turn doted upon Liszt, providing instruments, and the famous Salle Érard, for his concerts. The Érard piano was straight-strung as well, giving distinct differences in tone colour across the registral range, “almost like listening to a choir where you have the bass, tenor, alto and soprano voices”, with “huge opportunities in experimenting with colour”, as there is “no blending or homogenizing of the sound”, in the words of pianist Gwendolyn Mok, who plays an 1875 Érard.
The Barenboim-Maene piano press release states that the instrument “combines the touch, stability, and power of a modern piano with the transparent sound quality and distinguishable colour registers of more historic instruments”.
At the media launch, Barenboim played a short excerpt from a Beethoven sonata (the first few bars of the second movement of the Appassionata) first on his personal Steinway, and then on the Barenboim-Maene, to demonstrate the difference in sound quality and tonal colour.
Barenboim made it quite clear that he was not dissatisfied with his personal Steinway, however. In fact, he deftly side-stepped a few leading questions. For example, when he made the point about each of the four notes of a chord sounding differently on the new piano, he was asked if he couldn’t do this on his Steinway, and he answered, “I don’t like to think about the things I can’t do.” When asked which piano Mozart or Beethoven would have preferred of the two (the new Barenboim or the ‘old’ Steinway), he quipped “Just bring them here so I have a chance to talk to them!”
He compared the feeling he had for his creation to falling in love: “In the end it is a question of taste. I have grown to love this [new] piano. Now I want to play everything on it – it’s like when you fall in love again you want to go everywhere with that person. I’m like that with this piano. This piano has a different profile, a different sound. Like with string instruments, some people prefer a Guadagnini, some people prefer a Stradivarius.”
“I suppose you could call it arrogance, but I feel I have a personal relationship with any piano I play – you have to. Arthur Rubinstein told me, ‘You have to be inspired by the instrument. If you are not inspired by the instrument, you will not be able to realise the inspiration you get from the music.’ So I always always look for pianos that inspired me to play.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 7 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)