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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 8

The Piano Tamers

by Jean-Sébastien Gascon / May 10, 2004

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La Scena Musicale asked some of today's leading pianists to describe their relationship to the sound and character of their pianos. Their responses resembled comments horse trainers might make on the topic of purebreds: each piano, they say, has its own character, and if one can learn to master it, the instrument will produce not just sound but a higher state of emotion. Sometimes the piano will allow itself to be mastered easily; other times it will demand a great deal of patience and study from the musician. And if the player lacks control, the instrument may decide to reveal nothing but lifeless notes.

Marc-André Hamelin

From my point of view, the sound of a piano is far less important than its character. Even if a piano I'm using in a performance doesn't have the greatest sound in the world, I can still derive great enjoyment from the instrument. Remember that Maria Callas had a voice like a howling wolf but she still managed to conquer the entire opera-loving world. I've spent a lot of time in my life listening to scratchy old 78-rpm records and I'm quite used to screening out any distractions from the true character of the sound. I know a few people who can't bring themselves to enjoy music unless the sound is pure high-fidelity, and I feel they're completely missing the point.

Marc Durand

A lot of the time, young players don't really know how to go about mastering the sound of their instrument. Basically they rely on the piano to produce the sound, when in fact it should be the opposite--the piano should be relying on them to know where to go. Without that, the playing style will lack character, and it becomes hard to tell the difference between one pianist and another. Everything comes down to how you listen--both before and after the note is struck--and how you imagine the sound should be. In a way this is the real test of a pianist's artistic potential. He or she has to imagine a varied palette of sounds and know the techniques needed to produce the many different textures that will establish a given mood or direction. It's up to the player to master the physical inconsistencies of the piano or the concert hall's acoustics so that the essential artistic vision gets communicated.

The Fazioli is very sophisticated instrument. The sound has a kind of purity and transparency. Of course, that will suit some kinds of repertoire and some styles of playing more than others. Generally speaking, the Faziolis have a very strong low end, and the different registers are well balanced. They project their sound very well. The keys tend to react better to a note's attack than to its weight, however. This can confuse pianists who aren't familiar with an instrument like that, and they may have a lot of trouble adapting their technique in a satisfactory way. Bösendorfers are much the same. They force a pianist to master his sound.

The Yamaha, on the other hand, will meet a player closer to the middle, so to speak, and compensate for him or her with a more standard sound. Aside from some high-end Yamahas that I've been able to rent when performing in Japan, the ones we're used to over here tend to limit what a player can do creatively. They neutralize the range of tones and colours you can choose from. But they are still very good instruments--very strong and dependable. For some players they can afford real advantages.

Jean Saulnier

The Fazioli is quite an extraordinary instrument. It requires a lot of control from you. Your touch has to be confident and precise. It gives you a wide range of sounds and great individual clarity. You hear all the notes. And the sound is very strong; it projects really far. This works well for playing Beethoven and the classical repertoire. Basically, before you perform, you have to take the time to master the piano properly.

Oliver Jones

My relationship with my Yamaha is a very close one. With some pianos, you can feel that they will let you get inside their head, so to speak. Every piano has its own character, but some resist the player and some welcome him. But my playing will change according to the sound a piano divulges. So if I feel that it isn't giving me what I want with certain notes, I'll go look for others that convey a different message.

Alain Lefèvre

The sound of my piano? That's a difficult question. There are so many different ways to consider it. Should you look at the technical details or the mystical side, the mix of emotional possibilities that let you "inhabit" the sound of the instrument? In my day-to-day work, I always try to find a sonic personality that transcends the simple mechanics of hammers hitting down on strings. To do that, I need to have an instrument that has a perfect technical response, that's always balanced, that always allows me a full range of tones and colours. My working instrument is a Yamaha CF-III that's scrupulously maintained by an entire team of technicians at Yamaha in accordance with my specific needs. This lets me develop my range of sound to the greatest possible extremes. I also have an old Yamaha G-3, which I keep on hand for when the main instrument is being worked on.

André Laplante

My favourite pianos resonate really brightly and hold their sound a long time. I like that brightness, but at the same time I don't want to sound like a snare drum. A piano that will let me play very soft or very loud but always projects the sound well--that's the essential thing. If the piano can do that, I feel very at ease when I play. I don't feel like I need to struggle with the instrument. I can just concentrate on making music.

Janina Fialkowska

May I preface this short missive by stating that, contrary to many, I thoroughly enjoy the wide variety of instruments encountered on tour and that, while it is true a piano with notes that stick or that refuse to sound can be off-putting, in general, I view the fact that I don't have to carry around and use the same instrument wherever I appear, as a definite challenge and a bonus. Frankly this is an attitude that provides for low-stress and more enjoyment in an otherwise grueling profession; I still remember, almost fondly, an open air concert I played in Mexico, where I managed to get through the Rachmaninov piano concerto without the assistance of any pedal whatsoever.

However, my sympathies naturally gravitate towards a certain kind of ideal instrument; an instrument that suits my particular repertoire and the importance I place on a wide variety of colours, dynamics and, of ultimate necessity, an instrument that is able to "sing." I am less interested in harsh, percussive sounds, metallic sounds or dry sounds, which are of course an integral part of certain kinds of repertoire, or even outlooks on repertoire. Also, a piano is only as good as its technician and the Hall where it stands: a beautiful instrument can very well be destroyed by bad mechanics, and one of my favourite Hamburg Steinways (located in a renovated German monastery) suddenly lost all of its charms when the old wooden plank floor was replaced by a new wooden parquet floor that completely changed the acoustics and turned the piano sound shrill and less than appetizing. Similarly, in London's Wigmore Hall, there was a piano in the late 1990s that was an absolute dream on which to perform. A few years later, and with a change of technician, the instrument was ruined... at least, temporarily.

My favourite instrument? No question about that. This would be the Hamburg Steinway in the George Weston hall in North York Ontario. I have played and recorded on this instrument many times and it never fails to delight. Chopin works particularly well on this piano, whose keys give plenty of resistance, and whose dynamic range is exquisite. For my kind of repertoire with the emphasis squarely on lyricism, this is the perfect piano.

[Translation: Tim Brierley]

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