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Steinway Reading

A Piano Is Born, Needing Practice

How Does a Piano Get to Carnegie Hall?

James Barrons' New York Times series on the making of a Steinway model D concert Grand can be read here.

Where Old Pianos Go to Live

Other Articles

The Found Treasures of a Great Pianist (William Kapell)

Romantic Virtuosity (Sergei Rachmaninoff)


A Piano Is Born, Needing Practice
The New York Times, April 2, 2004
By JAMES BARRON

Over 10 months, it had been shaped, spray-painted, polished, worked on, tuned and worked on some more. In three minutes on its last day at the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens, grand piano No. K0862 got a new identity.

It became No. 565700 when a worker named Davendra Viran stenciled that number onto its cast-iron plate, a few inches above the keyboard, the 565,700th Steinway ever made.

A couple hours later, after bouncing over the Queensboro Bridge in a truck, it got another new identity.

Steinway had chosen No. 565700 to be one of the 300 or so grands in its concert fleet, a bank of pianos the company lends out for concerts, recitals, recording sessions and television programs. Steinway assigns those pianos yet another number, beginning with the letter C, for concert.

So No. 565700 became CD-60 - the D stands for the model - after it was dropped off at Steinway's store in Manhattan. Not in the first-floor showroom, with the wide window looking out on West 57th Street, but in the basement.

Among pianists, the Steinway basement is a storied destination, one that confers status. There, beneath fluorescent lights that hum and steam pipes that hiss, is what may be Steinway's most important asset, a roomful of long black pianos (except for the long white one that went to Billy Joel for a recording project some years ago). Their almost identical looks belie the basement's importance: every one of the pianos there is different. And everyone from Moriz Rosenthal -one of the last pupils of Liszt - to Glenn Gould to Mitsuko Uchida to Alfred Brendel has gone there to pick the perfect one to play.

Leonard Bernstein, who played Baldwins and Bosendorfers at concerts, sneaked in to choose a Steinway for recordings, or so Steinway officials say. Sergei Rachmaninoff was introduced to Vladimir Horowitz there in the 1920's. In the 1950's, Gary Graffman catnapped there while Leon Fleisher practiced on their favorite piano, and vice versa. In the 1980's, Rosalyn Tureck slipped and fell there, and sued. Steinway has not varnished the floor since.

These days, the basement is the domain of Ronald F. Coners, Steinway's chief concert technician. Horowitz once walked through the dungeonlike door and asked, "Where's the big one?" - meaning Mr. Coners, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall. "Most people think I'm the piano mover," he said. But not superstars like Daniel Barenboim and Mr. Brendel, who want him in the wings wherever they play. Other pianists have been known to send his bosses angry letters when he could not find the time for them.

Mr. Coners's assessment of CD-60 answered the question that had been hanging over it. It is the question that hangs over every new Steinway. The how-good-is-it question.

"It's raw," he said after playing a scale and a few chords. The treble was "a little too bright," meaning that some of the high notes sounded glassy.

Everyone in the piano business, from workers at the factory to concert pianists to tuners, says that every Steinway is different from every other Steinway, and that each has a unique sound. Some are modest, some monumental. And some, like CD-60, have potential but need time to develop.

Unlike brand-new pianos that are sold as soon as Mr. Viran rubs on the serial number, though, concert division pianos get help in the basement. Marvin Hamlisch calls the instruments in the concert division "couture pianos," because they can be custom tailored to fit a pianist's personality - and if one cannot be brightened up or toned down enough to please a particular pianist, the basement always has other pianos to try out.

Mr. Coners redid some things that had been done on CD-60, more than once, at the factory.

"Some of this is because it's new," he said.

But even as he spent part of an afternoon realigning hammers and respacing strings, he said CD-60 was proof that the factory is turning out better pianos than it once did.

"Twenty-five years ago, the action - everything felt heavy," he said. "We had a lot of tonal problems."

That is an understatement. In the 1970's and 1980's, some pianists complained that the magic had gone out of Steinway's concert grands. Some worried that the company's standards were slipping.

Now, as then, the problems with Steinway's concert pianos are supposed to be corrected in the basement. But, as he sat down at CD-60 and said that the brand-new pianos require much less work these days, he sounded a bit like the lonely repairman in Maytag commercials.

Still, he did a lot to CD-60. A week later, when the first of 15 pianists arrived to play it, its sound was more even, more focused.

"The whole problem with pianos is they're organic, constantly changing," Mr. Coners said. "Not like building a refrigerator or something."

For Each Number, a Sound

CD-60 was still No. 565700 when it was strapped in to a truck that pulled away from the loading dock at the factory in Astoria, Queens, and ambled along Steinway Street. Joe Ragusa was at the wheel.

After the ride over the Queensboro Bridge and a squeeze past some double-parked cars, Mr. Ragusa backed into a loading dock at the Steinway showroom's back door. Two movers trundled No. 565700 past old uprights that rest, all but abandoned, by a freight elevator barely wide enough to carry a 9-foot grand sideways.

Like CD-60, a single Steinway can have as many as three sets of numbers. The case number, a letter followed by four digits - K0862, for this piano - is assigned when the rim is bent and is used to track the piano at the factory. The letter changes at the beginning of the year. Last year was a K year; this year, the case numbers begin with L's.

Steinway's serial numbers, on the other hand, are for finished pianos. They continue a sequence going almost all the way back to the company's beginning in 1853. The Steinway before the ampersand in Steinway & Sons, Henry Engelhard Steinway, had finished 482 pianos before emigrating from Germany. The first piano built here, No. 483, was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 11 years, until last May.

In its first 50 years, Steinway made 100,000 pianos (No. 100000 was delivered to the White House in 1903; it is now at the Smithsonian Institution, where it was recently restored). The next 35 years were Steinway's busiest. It made 200,000 pianos. No. 300000, the Steinway that is still in the East Room, was delivered in 1938.

Concert division pianos are given another two- or three-digit number, the one preceded by a C. The second letter in the prefix refers to the model of the piano - D for concert grands, B for smaller grands, V (as in vertical) for uprights. Unlike the serial number, a concert division number is not permanent. Concert division pianos are typically retired from the fleet after five or six five years. When that happens, the concert division number is taken off and the six-digit serial number is stenciled on again.

Some Steinway buyers find decommissioned concert division instruments and snap them up. CD-18, the on-stage favorite of Rachmaninoff and later Horowitz, became the living-room piano in Eugene Istomin's apartment after it was retired from concert life. Van Cliburn so liked CD-79, a piano he discovered during a late-night practice session before a concert in Philadelphia some years ago, that he offered to buy it then and there. Steinway told him to wait - it was booked for at least 12 months. He did.

The Right 'Juice'

At the end of 2003, Steinway was making fewer concert grand pianos. There are not many consumers with living rooms large enough for a piano nearly 9 feet long. So Mr. Coners said he has no choice but to accept whatever Model D's the factory sends him.

There is also what he calls "the juicing issue" - how much lacquer, or "juice," should be drizzled on the hammers at the factory. Mr. Coners maintains that Steinway has improved the quality of its hammers in recent years, so they need less juice than they once did. Even so, he said, at the factory "some of the guys still go through this routine of putting quite a bit of juice in."

They put too much on CD-60, he said. That was why the treble was too forward and too bright. His strategy was to dribble on a different kind of juice, a solution that softened the hammers the factory juice had hardened.

Mr. Coners, 49, did not grow up imagining that he would spend his life tending concert pianos. He did not get very far with music as a child, and stumbled onto Steinway after attending Nassau Community College on Long Island and working as a house painter.

Elizabeth Mohr, a friend from the church Mr. Coners's family attended, suggested that he try Steinway, where her husband was the chief concert tuner. At the time, in 1975, the factory had no openings that involved working on pianos, but hired Mr. Coners for its maintenance department. After a month, he was "miserable," and told Franz Mohr, the chief tuner, that he was quitting.

But Mr. Mohr arranged a transfer. Mr. Coners became an apprentice technician in the basement.

"They'd never taken anybody from scratch like that," Mr. Coners said.

On his first day, Mr. Mohr said they would go "across the street" to a rehearsal.

Across the street meant Carnegie Hall. On the stage, practicing, was Arthur Rubinstein.

Within a year, Mr. Coners was tuning at Carnegie Hall, and a year or two later, he went on tour with Emil Gilels. "Most of what I teach everybody now, I learned from him," he said. "Not technical stuff, but what to listen for." Mr. Coners succeeded Mr. Mohr in 1992.

With CD-60, he changed the way the soft pedal shifts the hammers and all the parts that are between them and the keys. He worked on a half-dozen notes in the bass that he said sounded weak. And his assessment of it improved.

"Basically, a very good piano," he said. It remained "a little too bright up here" - the notes in two octaves above middle C. "It's got good body, though."

A Piano's Test Drives

In the Steinway basement, a piano is only as good as a pianist thinks it is. Of 15 pianists who were asked to try CD-60, the consensus was that it was quite good. And also quite young.

Emanuel Ax's verdict was "nice'' after playing Debussy. Robert Taub played Chopin and called CD-60 "tremendous.'' Brian Zeger played Ravel, as did Katia and Marielle Lab­que (but Katia Lab­que found CD-60 not terribly brilliant - "yet"). Mr. Hamlisch played "The Way We Were." Kenny Barron played "The Very Thought of You."

When the music stopped, the analogies began. Stephen Hough, who said CD-60 still sounded "raw" despite the work Mr. Coners had put in, compared it to a shoe that needed time to be broken in. Lang Lang said it was like a car that needed to be driven fast and hard, "in sixth or twelfth gear." Erika Nickrenz compared it to a colt that was fun to ride.

"It has a little kick to it," she said, "but it doesn't have the ugliness to go along with it, which, sometimes, when you get the kick, you get the ugly."

Mr. Hough and Mr. Hamlisch both likened it to a flower that has yet to bloom.

"It needs to have some sun and some water and some playing," Mr. Hough said, "and then it will just open out, and I think it will sound terrific after that."

Brian Zeger complained about "a tiny little lack of clarity" and "a slight lack of ping in the soprano register." Ms. Nickrenz, on the other hand, heard "a certain brightness in the treble" that she said would probably mellow with time.

But CD-60 sounded as if it had been built for Mr. Taub. Perhaps, at that particular moment in that particular place, it was simply closer to what he likes and sounds good on, starting with the way the keys responded to his touch.

CD-60, he said, "has the kind of action which is effortless to play, completely predictable, completely uniform, and the way it's voiced, the sound is almost completely uniform, so that everything you are doing can be an artistic statement rather than a mechanical compensation.''

Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times's chief art critic, also liked the way CD-60 felt, though he had reservations about the way it sounded. "Some people obviously like a different sort of action," Mr. Kimmelman said after warming up with one Scarlatti sonata and then switching to another. "For me, this feels like a dream."

But the treble "sounds just a little brighter than I like," Mr. Kimmelman said. Mr. Hamlisch said it was "out of character" with the rest of the piano. Jeffrey Siegel, zipping through an arpeggio, said, "The tone is getting much weaker here."

The prescription may be patience. The treble was noticeably less jangling two weeks later, when Mr. Ax and Mr. Barron tried out CD-60. Mr. Barron called the treble "bell-like" that morning.

But one pianist's idea of bigness is different from another's. Mr. Lang said CD-60 had enough thunder to take on Carnegie Hall. Mr. Zeger, too, called it "a big-hall piano."

Mr. Ax said it would probably do better in a smaller auditorium. For a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, he said, "You might ask for something a little bit louder for a Russian concerto or something of that sort, and probably especially for Mozart, because in Mozart you need to cut through a little bit."

But he also said, in effect, wait awhile - it is still too soon to know how CD-60 will turn out because it is hard to judge a piano that is still so new. "I have a good feeling about it,'' he said. "I think it's going to do well.''

So one piano's opening chapter ends with four words that sound like a television reporter's closing: Only time will tell. CD-60's next chapter, its working life as an itinerant concert piano, will begin 614 miles from the Steinway basement, in Kalamazoo, Mich. CD-60 is one of seven grands that Steinway plans to send to the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival there this month. Who will play CD-60 in a performance of Liszt's "Hexameron" variations for six pianos will not be decided until it has been unloaded, tuned and tried out all over again.

Copyright 2004áThe New York Times Company


How Does a Piano Get to Carnegie Hall?
The New York Times,
May 11, 2003
By JAMES BARRON

The contest was between a giant sandwich of wood - 18 strips of maple, each about half as long as a city bus - and half a dozen workers with muscles, a pneumatic wrench and a time-conscious foreman. The workers were supposed to bend and shove those 18 strips into a familiar-looking shape, and beat the clock. "We're allotted 20 minutes," the foreman, Joseph Gurrado, muttered.

After 14 minutes of pushing and pulling and flexing and grunting that another boss standing nearby called "the Fred Flintstone part of the operation," the wood was forced into a curve. And, in the too-warm basement of a gritty factory that opened when Ulysses S. Grant was president, piano No. K0862 was born.

Like other newborns, it came with hopes for greatness and fears that it might not measure up despite a distinguished family name, Steinway.

Or that it would be grumbled about by Steinway's customers - temperamental, obsessive, finicky pianists whose love-hate relationship with the company and its products is as complicated and emotional as anything in Chekhov. Yes, pianists grouse that Steinways are not what they used to be. Yes, pianists ascribe whatever faults they found in whatever Steinway they just played to every Steinway. And no, the majority would never play anything but.

Steinway knows all this. Like No. K0862, every new piano that rolls out of the Steinway & Sons factory - in Astoria, Queens, next to oil tanks that block the view of the Rikers Island jails - is an attempt to refute the notion that the

So how good will No. K0862 be? Will it sound like "a squadron of dive bombers," as the pianist Gary Graffman said of a Steinway he hated on first hearing but came to love? Or will it begin life with the enormous bass and sweet-singing treble that pianists prize the way wine lovers prize a 1989 RomanÈe-Conti? Will it be good enough for Steinway's concert division, which supplies pianos to big-name artists?

No one can say. Not yet.

It will take about eight months to finish No. K0862, an 8-foot 11ć3/8-inch concert grand. Along the way, the rim will be aged in a room as dim as a wine cellar. It will be sprayed with lacquer, rubbed and sprayed again.

Its 340-pound iron plate will be lowered in and lifted out 10 or 12 times. It will spend time in rooms where workers wear oxygen masks to avoid getting headaches (or getting high) from smelly glues. It will be broken in by a machine that plays scales without complaint, unlike a student.

Someone walking through the factory, following the progress of No. K0862, could forget a basic fact about what goes on there: Every Steinway is made the same way from the same materials by the same workers. Yet every Steinway ends up being different from every other - not in appearance, perhaps, but in ways that are not easily put into words: colorations of sound, nuances of strength or delicacy, what some pianists call personality. Some Steinways end up sounding small or mellow, fine for chamber music. Some are so percussive a full-strength orchestra cannot drown them out. On some, the keys move with little effort. On others, the pianist's hands and arms get a workout.

Why? No one at Steinway can really say.

Perhaps it is the wood. No matter how carefully Steinway selects or prepares each batch, some trees get more sunlight than others in the forest, and some get more water. Certain piano technicians say uncontrollable factors make the difference. <P> Perhaps, in a plant where everyone is an expert craftsman, some are great, others merely good.

Someday, if its personality turns out to be extroverted but not strident, if its key action turns out to be loose but not mushy, No. K0862 may be pounded or caressed in public by someone like Alfred Brendel or Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. First, though, No. K0862 will be pounded and caressed in the factory by woodworkers with tattoos on their burly arms, by technicians known as bellymen, by tuners confident that they can improve it, no matter how good it sounds at first.

There is Anthony Biondi, 31, who was hired nine years ago as a veneer cutter, someone who selects wood for rims. His tools include the oldest machine still used in the factory, a 130-year-old cutter, and the newest, a million-dollar trimmer that arrived in January.

There is his boss, Mr. Gurrado, the foreman. In a company once legendary for its "lifers," he is a new kind of middle manager. When Steinway hired him in 2000, he had no experience in woodworking but 15 years of manufacturing everything from leather goods to lemonade. He replaced a foreman who retired after 41 years of making Steinway rims.

And there is Andrew Horbachevsky, the 44-year-old manufacturing director, who has worked for Steinway for 15 years. "This company kind of sucks you in," he said. "I've had a dream where my wife turned into a piano."

A Holdout in Queens

Steinway remains one of the last outposts of hand craftsmanship in a machine-dominated industry in what was once a boomtown for piano makers. Steinway is now one of the last large manufacturing operations in New York City, which the State Labor Department says lost 666,400 factory jobs between 1962 and the end of last year, when 217,000 remained.

Unlike competitors that left for plants in the Sun Belt, Steinway has stayed put. The factory was originally the centerpiece of a 400-acre company town where Steinway workers lived in Steinway-built houses and shopped at Steinway-owned stores.

By moving everything but their store and their offices out of Manhattan, the Steinways hoped to elude 19th-century labor turmoil. They succeeded, for a while.

Eventually, the Steinways sold all but 11 acres, and, in 1972 they sold the company itself, which was unionized in the 1930's. But their name remains on Steinway Street, and company officials say that most of the 450 workers at the plant still live in the neighborhood. Mr. Biondi, the veneer cutter, bicycles to work in warm weather.

Real Ebony? $50,000

Now as in the past, the products made in the Steinway factory are famous, and famously expensive. No. K0862 will sell for about the same as one of the most expensive Mercedes-Benz coupes: $92,800.

No. K0862 will have what Steinway calls an ebonized finish, meaning it will be painted black. Real ebony is available, for an extra $50,000: Steinway says it has no effect on the sound. But the guts of every concert grand - the strings, the hammers that strike them, the keys to which the hammers are attached - are identical.

That raises the question of age. Is a brand-new piano ready the moment it leaves the factory?

Maybe, maybe not. In the 1920's, a golden age for Steinway, there were probably pianists and tuners who whined that the best pianos were those made at the end of the 19th century. There are certainly pianists today with a fondness if not a reverence for Steinways from the 1920's and 1930's. "The majority of instruments from back then, there's a level of color and personality that is undeniable," said the pianist Stephen Hough.

As for what comes out of the factory these days, the pianist Erika Nickrenz said: "The brand-new Steinways tend to be a little blank. They have all the characteristics, but it takes pianists to play them and really bring out what's there." But, in a tryout at Steinway's showroom in Manhattan, she preferred a concert grand that left the factory on April 27 to four others, including one from 1962.

"Older is not better, and we can prove it," said Bruce A. Stevens, the company's president. "Where that started was with people who make their living rebuilding Steinways, and they tell their customers that. We've just about given up rebutting it." But not completely. A moment later, he used the word poppycock.

Determining which pianos are great is terribly subjective. In 1981, The Atlantic Monthly watched Steinway assemble a concert grand, No. K2571. By the time the magazine published its 18,000-word article, that piano had been put before AndrÈ-Michel Schub, who picked a different instrument for a recital at the factory. But Richard Goode played No. K2571 at Alice Tully Hall.

And then, when it was not quite two years old, Rudolf Serkin adopted it. "He wasn't really happy with the Steinways he had been playing in concert," recalled the manager of Steinway's dealership in Boston, Paul Murphy. So Steinway lined up half a dozen grands for Serkin to try.

He chose No. K2571 and had it shipped first to the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont and later to his studio nearby. It stayed there until shortly before his death in 1991, when Mr. Murphy delivered a new piano, hauled away No. K2571 and gave it the equivalent of a 100,000-mile tuneup. Mr. Murphy later sold No. K2571 to a medical student from Japan. She took it to Kyoto.

Guts of Steel

In the two decades since that piano left the factory, Steinway has done some modernizing. Computer-generated bar codes now track the parts of a piano in the making. In 1981, one way that was done was on file cards in the pocket of a great-grandson of the company's founder.

Machines now cut the wood for the lids and legs - something done by hand until about 15 years ago. "This is furniture-making," Mr. Horbachevsky said. But he added, "There are operations we can't automate because that would take the soul out of Steinway."

One of those operations is the one Mr. Gurrado inherited last year, rim-bending. It had gone unchanged for so long because the piano has gone unchanged for so long.

What Steinway's original square pianos - or its earliest grands - did not have were rigid rims. The company's second generation perfected that. One of the Steinways after the ampersand in the company's name, C.F. Theodore Steinway, held more than 40 patents and collaborated with the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz to marry the methodology of science to the making of pianos. They reasoned that longer and stronger strings would produce a larger and louder sound but would also put extreme pressure on the rim.

C.F. Theodore Steinway's solution is Mr. Gurrado's: rim lamination. C.F. Theodore Steinway figured that gluing thin strips of wood together would create a rim noticeably stronger and more durable than one crafted from just one or two thick boards. Even the glue would add strength. Laminating the rim was one of the innovations that made possible an instrument with a big sound, the grand piano Steinway has manufactured ever since.

When a Book Is a Sandwich

The eight-month manufacturing schedule for No. K0862 does not include the morning Mr. Biondi spent slicing the stack of wood for the rim into pieces 3/16 of an inch thick and roughly eight feet long. Nor the time he spent taping those pieces into 22-foot-long strips to form the "book," as the sandwich of wood that becomes a rim is known at the factory.

Among Steinway's workers, Mr. Horbachevsky says, rim-bending was once dominated by Italians. No one can say for sure why they were hired for those jobs more often than for others, but when a job was available, someone at Steinway would tell a friend, who would apply.

In the 1980's, Caribbean immigrants began taking the place of Italians who retired. In the 1990's, the labor pool changed again. Now the crew includes three Bosnians.

Among them is Nazif Sutrovic, who was a police official in Sarajevo during the 1984 Winter Olympics and has worked at Steinway since 1997. Apologizing for his balky English, he says, "I don't have time to go to school." He has another job, as the superintendent of a Brooklyn apartment building.

The Wood Gets Amnesia

On the way to what Steinway calls the rim-bending machine - though it is essentially a piano-shaped vise perfected by C. F. Theodore Steinway, and has no motor - Mr. Gurrado's crew made an important stop They fed the book, layer by layer, through a glue-spreader that looks something like a washer with a wringer. At the far end, two workers, Tommy Stavrianos and Jean Robert Laguerre, dipped brushes in glue pots for touch-ups.

Mr. Stavrianos - at 28, the youngest man on the crew - and his colleagues talk proudly of the pianos they make and the company's traditions. But they are not the concert-hall regulars that their pianos are. The radios around the factory play soft rock and jazz, not stations where Steinway artists are often heard.

The rim-benders use their physical strength in a way that is unusual in a modern factory. At 9:54 a.m., the crew leader, Eric Lall, is busy shoving the book into place along the side of the piano where the keys for the bass notes will be. He begins tightening spindles on the clamps while Patrick Acosta, 30, uses a long-handled lever to force the rest of the book toward the big curve at the end.

Mr. Acosta says this is all the exercise he needs, or gets: "I build pianos. That's my workout." The lever in his hands weighs 80 pounds. The clamps - "posts," the crew calls them - are 65 pounds each.

At 10:10, with a whack from Mr. Acosta, the rim is done. "Fourteen minutes," Mr. Gurrado says.

The time allotted for bending a rim is 20 to 25 minutes. As he explains, "We're working against the glue." It begins to set that fast.

The rim spends its first 24 hours clamped in place. "Wood has a memory," Mr. Gurrado says. The day in the clamps is deprogramming time, so the wood will forget its past and not pop out of its new shape.

After three days across the workroom from where it was bent - Mr. Gurrado does not want to shock it by moving it out of a by-now-familiar environment too quickly - it goes to a room that looks like a wine cellar but is warm and dry and on an upper floor in the factory. It will spend about 60 days there, with 500 other rims that are awaiting sounding boards, plates and keys.

"It's going to be whatever it's going to be, good or whatever," Mr. Stavrianos says after parking it there. "There's nothing you can do now but wait. It's out of our hands."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


Where Old Pianos Go to Live
The New York Times,
November 22, 2001
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

The one thing you will never see at the Frederick Historic Piano Collection in Ashburnham, Mass., is a sign that reads, "Do Not Touch." Unlike most museums, this important collection of historic 19th-century pianos is meant to be used.

Its owners and directors are a married couple with a mission: Edmund Michael Frederick, a former East Asian history major and harpsichord builder and an amateur performer, and Patricia Humphrey Frederick, a specialist in elementary music education, church organist and choir director. They purchased their first instrument in 1976: a Stodart built in London about 1830 that cost them just over $2,000, with an additional $1,000 for air freight, that required extensive restoration upon arrival.

Drawing upon some inheritance, they kept searching for and buying historic instruments in whatever condition. Today the collection has 18 pianos, restored by Mr. Frederick and ready for play. These range from an unsigned instrument from about 1795, almost certainly Viennese, to an 1907 Blüthner built in Leipzig, a typically warm-toned German piano, though Debussy acquired one in 1904 and loved it. Another 14 pianos are being restored. The current combined value of the restored pianos is hard to estimate: it's like setting a price on antiques. But Mr. Frederick puts it at roughly $400,000.

Michael Quan for The New York Times

An 1871 Streicher from the Frederick collection, similar to the one Brahms owned.

The couple fulfilled a long-held goal last spring and moved the collection into a renovated 1890 one-story brick former library in the center of this town in north-central Massachusetts. For now, they are leasing the building from the town at $1 a year in exchange for financing the renovations themselves, supported by some crucial grants, including one from the Massachusetts State Historical Commission.

For more than 20 years they kept all the instruments in their five-room house down the road. At the collection's new home you can see a floor plan of the Frederick house as it used to be, showing furniture more or less stuck between multiple pianos that dominated each room, including several that could only fit when kept on their sides.

This nonprofit institution is intended as a resource for pianists, scholars, students and the curious. Conservatory teachers regularly bring groups of piano students to try out their Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt and Ravel pieces on pianos like the ones those composers would have played, by manufacturers like Clementi, Bösendorfer, Graf, Erard and Pleyel. Workshops, lecture-recitals and scholarly research also take place there. Though they have no standard fee system for using the collection, Mr. Frederick said, "we beg energetically."

The couple also present concert series, but for these performances the desired piano is moved to the nearby Community Church, a commodious space that can seat 200. The nominal admission fee is $5 (free to students and children). The fall season ended on Oct. 21 with Susan Alexander-Max playing works by Mozart, Haydn, Johann Christian Bach, C. P. E. Bach and Clementi on a Clementi piano from 1806. The concerts resume in May.

Familiarity with 19th-century pianos is critical to interpretating piano music of that era. It is widely assumed that once the precursors to modern concert grand pianos were built, during the 1820's, pianos just got progressively bigger, louder and more efficient. This, Mr. Frederick asserts, is a misconception.

"People have this idea of a simple linear development from Cristofori to Steinway," he said. "In fact it wasn't that neat. What went on was all sorts of pianos of different kinds and qualities were being made and used at the same time."

The strength of the Frederick collection is its comprehensiveness. A pianist hoping to make a recording on, say, a Broadwood, from a mid- 19th-century London manufacturer, might find one somewhere preferable to the 1871 Broadwood at the Frederick collection. But few other places offer such a range of 19th- century instruments in one inviting room, which is why musicians and scholars >from around the world regularly trek to this bucolic town.

The best way to appreciate the collection is to sit down at the pianos and play them. Last summer, armed with a stack of scores from Haydn to Ravel, I did just that. And for another point of view I brought along my former piano teacher, Donald Currier, professor emeritus at the Yale School of Music.

Mr. Frederick usually suggests that visitors start with the newest and work back. So he first directed us to that elegant, restored 1907 mahogany Blüthner, which he acquired, in pretty unplayable condition, for just $2,500 from a Dutch dealer.

Mr. Currier began by playing Debussy's "Soirée dans Grenade" from "Estampes" (1903). In this slinky, slow and exotic music, the sound of the Blüthner was aptly rich and warm, perhaps a little woofy in comparison with bright modern Steinways, but quite alluring. The repeated midrange C-sharps that gently suggest a habanera rhythm came through with seductive presence. Most striking was the way the slightest pressure from Mr. Currier's fingers caused the insinuating melody in the left hand to ring out with haunting effect.

He next played a late Brahms work, the wistful Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, on the same piano, and again, though the overall sound was somewhat buzzy, the piano had an remarkably lingering tone. Brahms's harmonies blended in bracing ways, with dissonant notes bumping up against one another and tweaking the music.

The piano, it must be remembered, is a percussion instrument. So once a tone is struck, it starts to die away.

"If you want lingering tone," Mr. Frederick said, "try the 1877 Bösendorfer." Mr. Currier did, playing the Brahms again, and indeed the thick, smoky tone just quivered in the air.

Mr. Currier was curious about an 1846 Streicher, a Viennese piano that Schumann and the young Brahms would have known. He played some of Schumann's dreamy "Kinderscenen" and then parts of that composer's rhapsodic "Kreisleriana." The sound was bright, piercing and clear. "Maybe too clear," Mr. Currier said, as he struggled to keep inner voices from sticking out. Yet the metallic brightness of the sound was somehow soft spoken, making Schumann's remembrances of childhood at once impish and tender.

The Streicher's special strength, Ms. Frederick suggested, is as an instrument for accompanying singers. To demonstrate, she both sang and played Schumann's "Widmung." Sure enough, no matter how much body she brought to the restless accompaniment patterns, the clear sound was so distinct that it never covered her voice.

Matters of tempo in 19th-century piano music are heated topics among those who visit the collection. The metronome markings in Beethoven, Schumann and other 19th-century composers tend to be on the fast side. Could the metronomes back then have been faulty? Some scholars think so. Not Mr. Frederick.

When Clara Schumann went back to work as a concert pianist after her husband died in 1856, she got some "very bad reviews for playing too fast," Mr. Frederick said. "If these were Robert's tempos, the critics said, then there must have been something wrong with his metronome. Nothing was wrong. What had happened was that the sound of pianos in the 1850's had gotten noticeably thicker. So tempos that sounded reasonable in 1835 sounded rushed and blurry 20 years later."

To drive home this point Ms. Frederick played a piece from Czerny's "School of Velocity," a volume of technical studies still used today, on a Viennese piano, a Katholnig, most likely from about 1810. She took it at Czerny's seemingly reckless metronome marking. The Katholnig has an extremely light keyboard action and a slightly clattery but shimmering sound. Played at that tempo on a modern Steinway the music would have been a blurry mess. On the Viennese instrument it sounded fleet and clear, a whirlwind of runs and misty harmonies.

Mr. Currier was eager to try a Haydn sonata on an 1806 Clementi piano from London. When Haydn visited London in the mid-1790's, he was struck by the big lush bass sound and dry middle register of local pianos. "That's why the `London' sonatas have so many thick, forte chords in the lower range, and so many doubled lines in thirds and octaves in the upper range," Mr. Frederick said.

Mr. Currier played the two-movement Haydn Sonata No. 48 in C, with its slow opening Andante (a long- spun melody keeps returning with increasingly elaborate ornamentation) and rollicking rondo finale. As he played, every little melodic and ornamental gesture came out vividly, with no sense of forcing. The left hand chords became a harmonic bedrock of wonderfully buzzy sound reminiscent of an enormous harpsichord. Mr. Currier, who has spent many years trying to figure out how to play such music on a modern piano, was elated. "That's the sound you want," he said. "It's easy. For once you don't have to tiptoe through the piece."

Haydn wrote contentedly for the pianos of >his day. But what about Beethoven, a thumper of a virtuoso, famous for busting strings when he performed his works on the pianos at his disposal? Beethoven complained constantly about the inadequacy of keyboard instruments. True, he complained about everything. But the hard-driving "Appassionata" would seem to have been conceived for a piano of the future.

And yet some things in the Beethoven sonatas are virtually impossible to play on modern grands with their heavy actions, for example the glissando octaves in the climactic coda of the "Waldstein" Sonata. Holding your thumb and pinky at an octave's distance in each hand, you must slide up and down the white keys. In concert Rudolf Serkin used to wet his fingers in his mouth discreetly as the passage approached to ease it along.

I tried playing that passage on the Katholnig, with its light action and quick response, and it was almost easy. Slide up, slide down; just like Chico Marx.

But what about, say, the late "Hammerklavier" Sonata. Even a steely modern Steinway can barely stand up to the demands of this monumental music, with its pummeling chords, gnashing trills and hellbent final fugue. I played the bracing chordal opening theme on an 1828 Graf, a renowned Viennese company. It was like using a kiddie piano for an adult job.

Mr. Frederick was quick to point out that each piano from that era was valued for its individual qualities. The ideal of a standardized piano with perfect evenness throughout its range came with the late industrial age, he said. As he and Ms. Frederick write in an essay about their collection, "Pianos built before the 20th century frequently displayed intentionally wide ranges of tone color."

So Beethoven used to advantage certain aspects of the pianos he had at hand and looked beyond the qualities he found deficient. At the Frederick collection, through its concerts, workshops and lecture-recitals, you can hear virtually every type of piano Beethoven would have played. Better yet, play them yourself. That's the whole idea.

Copyright 2001The New York Times Company


The Found Treasures of a Great Pianist
The New York Times, November 10, 2004
By DANIEL J. WAKIN

When the 31-year-old pianist William Kapell, one of the last century's great geniuses of the keyboard, was killed in a plane crash in 1953, he was returning from a concert tour in Australia. Now, a cache of privately made recordings from that tour has surfaced, a find that music lovers are calling an incalculable treasure, given Kapell's legendary status and dozen-year flicker of a career.
"It's as if somebody were to find a dozen new paintings by Rembrandt or a lost film of Charlie Chaplin," said Daniel Guss, director of the classical catalog for BMG Music, the successor to RCA, for which Kapell recorded.

The emergence of these more than three hours of recorded music is a tale of serendipity, of a collector's passion and of a music lover's act of selflessness. And when the recordings, preserved on three 16-inch acetate discs, are turned over to Kapell's widow at a New York restaurant tomorrow, a new chapter will begin: the question of whether they will be commercially released.

For now, the few in the piano world who know about the recordings' existence are savoring the idea of hearing not only new versions of works Kapell recorded commercially but also performances of works entirely new to his discography, whether on RCA or in pirated editions.

Kapell, while not widely known today, is revered by pianists of all stripes, and his death hit the classical-music world with the force of the plane crash that killed the pop musicians Richie Valens and Buddy Holly. He joined the realm of postwar musical meteors cut down in youth, like the conductor Guido Cantelli (36), the tenor Fritz Wunderlich (35) and the pianist Dinu Lipatti (33), who all now live frozen in preciously guarded recordings.

Born in New York and raised on the Upper East Side, Kapell was the leading light of a crop of great American pianists who emerged after World War II, including Gary Graffman, Eugene Istomin, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn and Leon Fleisher.

Harold C. Schonberg, the late New York Times critic, wrote in his book "The Great Pianists" (1963) of Kapell's "spectacularly honest technique (never any bluff or coverup), a forthright musical approach and a fierce integrity."

"His playing had that indefinable thing known as command," Schonberg added, " and he was well on his way to being one of the century's important pianists." His greatness came from completeness, in the view of critics - not just phenomenal technique, acute attention to detail and profound rhythmic security but a deep sense of lyricism and passion in his playing and integrity in his musicianship.

Mr. Graffman, who was friendly with Kapell, said, "He was the No. 1 - there was no question about it - pianist of his time."

The recordings are very much part of a personal drama for Kapell's widow, Dr. Anna Lou Kapell-Dehavenon, an anthropologist. Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon, 76, who as a young pianist fell in love with Kapell and was married to him for five years before his death, has carefully tended the flame of her husband's musical memory, never begrudging the release of bootleg recordings.

"It's breaking me to pieces," she said of the discovery of the discs, which she has heard in an elementary CD dub. "When I listen to these performances, it's as if he's alive and in front of me. You can imagine what this does to me 50 years later. He was inseparable from the music."

Virtually all Kapell's commercial recordings and some noncommercially recorded works appeared in a nine-CD set issued by BMG Classics' RCA Red Seal line in 1998.

Mr. Guss said it was too early to determine whether BMG would release the new recordings. The pending merger of BMG and Sony's recording arm has created uncertainty over future projects. But Mr. Guss said he would like to see the music issued. "We've missed out on 50 years of recordings," he said. "This is just a small payback." To judge from the dub, he added, the quality is uneven, but restoration appears possible.

The cache, which is being delivered by old college friends of Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon who happened to be traveling in Australia, includes versions of pieces Kapell had already recorded, like the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," the Bach A minor Suite (BWV 818) and a Chopin E flat Nocturne (Op. 55, No. 2).

The new renditions are invaluable, given Kapell's rapid development as an artist, piano experts said.

"His maturing was exponential in the last couple of years," said Allan Evans, a historian of the piano tradition, a teacher at the Mannes College of Music and an informal adviser to Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon. "He was shedding his past as an interpreter of Russian war-horse pieces, like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and deepening his study of Beethoven and Bach, Mozart and Schubert.

"Above all, Kapell was at his absolute best in concert."

But the jewels are works never heard in Kapell recordings. These are said to be Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, Debussy's "Suite Bergamasque," Mozart's entire Sonata in B flat, K. 570 (a second movement is in the RCA set) and two pieces by Chopin: the Barcarolle (Op. 60) and the Scherzo in B minor. There is also what is said to be a spectacular version of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3, although an earlier, inferior live performance was briefly on the market.

"He was a very great artist in his prime, playing at his best, before his career was tragically interrupted," Mr. Evans said. "This is great music, and he was plugged into its spirit. Any manifestation of this is invaluable for the sake of culture and our understanding of what this music is all about."

The recordings were preserved thanks to a retired department store salesman and manager in Melbourne named Roy Preston. Starting in the late 1940's, Preston obsessively recorded concerts transmitted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the radio, using a home recording machine with a needle that cut grooves into acetate discs.

Preston, as a founding member of the Theater Organ Society in Australia, befriended a junior member, Maurice Austin. In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Austin described how his friend meticulously indexed the recordings and even made his own polyethylene sleeves for the discs.

Mr. Austin said he had tended to Preston, who had no children and lived alone, as his health declined, driving him to concerts, putting him in a nursing home and cleaning out the house. He was eventually given the collection of more than 10,000 LP's, CD's, 78's and acetate discs.

Mr. Austin said that one of his friend's stories had intrigued him. Preston said he had given away an acetate disc to someone and was later tickled to discover music from it on a bootleg CD in a record store. It was a piece from Kapell's last concert, on Oct. 22, 1953: Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. Mr. Austin searched through the collection and found the other Kapell discs, and he decided they belonged with Kapell's family.

"There's a person at the other side of the world who is alive, has a close relationship to these recordings, and it was just right," Mr. Austin said of his motivation.

He searched the Internet for the Kapells and finally managed to get an e-mail through to a Kapell grandson, Joshua Kapell. Mr. Kapell said he received the e-mail on Oct. 29, 2003, exactly 50 years after his grandfather's plane crash on the approach to San Francisco. Mr. Preston died two months later, at 88.

Mr. Austin, who has since struck up an e-mail frienship with Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon, said almost apologetically that he felt proud to have done what he did and that he had no interest in compensation. He said he asked only one thing.

If the music is ever released commercially, he wants a copy of the CD.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


Romantic Virtuosity
By BYRON JANIS
The Wall Street Journal May 27, 2006; Page P14

The unparalleled mastery of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) as a composer, pianist and conductor places him at the top of the so-called triple-crown artists. This achievement is seen in his four piano concertos, whose similarity of architecture, soaring, Slavic-tinged passion and sensuality, and exciting rhythmic passages are the common thread that weaves the four into one grand tableau.

Rachmaninoff's First Concerto was started in 1890, when he was 17. By that time he had already begun sketching the most famous of all his concertos, the Second. He chose, however, to continue writing the first movement of the First Concerto, completing it in 1891 while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. It was performed the following year and was well received (in the 19th century, playing one movement of a work was standard practice). After putting the First Concerto aside for almost a year, he rushed to finish it and told a friend that he had orchestrated the second and third movements in two days! Starting a work and not completing it until later was typical of him.

The First was performed in its entirety shortly thereafter with great
success. A leading critic wrote, "There was not yet, of course, any
individuality but there was taste, tension, youthful sincerity and obvious
knowledge; already there is much promise." It is a remarkable work both
for its bravura and its rhythmic ingenuity, though, except for the lovely,
nocturne-like theme of the second movement, the themes are of a somewhat
lesser quality than those in his later concertos. The cadenza -- where the
orchestra is silent and the pianist becomes the lone performer "playing"
with the previous themes in different keys and different rhythms -- is
striking for its surging lyricism and exploding virtuosity. The concerto
was largely rewritten in 1917, becoming the version now performed. The
extraordinary cadenza is the only part that remained unchanged.

After initially sketching the Second Concerto, it took Rachmaninoff 11 years to begin writing it. In the interim, he had composed and conducted an opera, "Aleko," many songs, and his First Symphony -- a failure. He once confessed to a friend, "I have no faith in myself. There is in the whole world no critic as doubtful of me than myself." Having fallen into a deep depression, he was persuaded to consult with Dr. Nicolai Dahl, a hypnotherapist. While Rachmaninoff was in a hypnotic state, he was told again and again, "You are going to write a new, beautiful concerto." And that is what he did.

The first performance of the second and third movements in 1900 met with enormous fanfare. The Second Concerto, dedicated to Dr. Dahl, was performed in its entirety a year later. The viola section in this score is more prominent than usual; could that be because the doctor was also an accomplished violist? This concerto is famous for its many memorably beautiful themes, some of which have become popular songs or been used as movie themes. "Full Moon and Empty Arms," written by Ted Mossman and Buddy Kaye, was even recorded by Frank Sinatra.

The Second Concerto differs from his others in that Rachmaninoff made the piano and orchestra equal partners, unusual writing for a great pianist. Often, he has the orchestra playing the theme with the piano in the role of accompanist. Even the impassioned opening theme, which appears throughout the concerto, is played only by the orchestra. It is also the only time his writing for the piano was technically awkward. Rachmaninoff agreed that it was "uncomfortable to play." He obviously had not yet regained his self-confidence and probably chose not to write a cadenza to avoid playing alone, unsupported.

The Third Concerto, written in his favorite key, D minor, is a pianist's "tour de force" in which the piano always dominates. It is probably the most difficult work to play in the romantic-virtuoso repertoire. Composers usually write according to the range and dimension of their hands and, in the case of Rachmaninoff, they were unusually large. Ironically, he dedicated the towering Third to his favorite pianist, Josef Hoffman, who could never play it because of his small hands! Full of searing passion and sweeping grandeur, it is always extremely pianistic and makes the most difficult passages feel comfortable "in the hand." While his immobile face conveyed none of what he was feeling inside, his intensely powerful emotions and exciting virtuosity are evident in all that he wrote.

The Third was written with America in mind -- a big concerto for a big country -- and was to have its premiere in 1909 with the New York Symphony Orchestra (in 1928 this orchestra merged with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York to become the New York Philharmonic), conducted by Walter Damrosch. In New York, Rachmaninoff as well as the orchestra had to play the concerto from the manuscript, as it had yet to be printed. It was a tremendous triumph but somehow did not immediately capture the attention of other pianists.

On meeting the great Vladimir Horowitz for the first time, Rachmaninoff declared, "I wrote this concerto for an elephant!" Horowitz seemed to be the "elephant" who lit the way for its future acclaim. The composer remarked that its beautiful opening theme "is borrowed neither from folk music nor from church sources; it simply wrote itself."

Alas, the Fourth Concerto, completed in 1926, is not of the caliber of the other three. Rachmaninoff seems to have been writing from his head, not his heart. Despite some lovely moments and the last movement's original writing, it fell far short of everyone's expectations. Rachmaninoff revised the Fourth several times, but to no avail. This was a major blow to him, as he had not composed anything since 1916. After agonizing for months, he withdrew the Fourth from his repertoire. It remains the least played and recorded of his concertos.

Rachmaninoff's first three concertos, however, deserve to be called masterpieces. They have withstood the test of time and set a standard by which all romantic-virtuoso concertos should be measured.

--------------

Mr. Janis, a world-renowned concert pianist, has recorded the first three
Rachmaninoff piano concertos (the First and Third twice), Prokofiev's
Concerto No. 3 and both Liszt concertos, to name a few. There is also a
new DVD of his previously unreleased recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsod on a Theme of Paganini.

Copyright 2006 The Wall Street Journal


Dr. Jane Brockman is a member of the Music Teachers Association of California, West Los Angeles branch, and former member of their board of directors.

Call (310-876-1188) or email for references and more information.

 

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