Slate article on antique pianos

Did anybody else read the Slate article on "authentic sound’ on pianos? I found it very thought-provoking.

Essentially it’s the “historically informed performance” school of thought as it relates to the piano, and specifically to this “piano library” in Massachusetts. I thought it was quite an interesting point of view, especially the parts on Beethoven and the sonatas. I’d never thought of it that way before, that “It’s hard to make a Steinway sound anything but elegant; it’s not so good at hair-raising.” On the other hand, it’s obviously silly to say “you’ve never heard the Moonlight Sonata” if you haven’t heard it on a period instrument. On the other, that last Appassionata clip is amazing, in my opinion, when compared to the versions I have lying around.


I haven’t listened to all of the examples yet, but they are right that different pianos have different sounds and feels, even from the same maker. And, with no doubt, the more automated and mechanical and precise the construction process, the more similar pianos are.

But, here’s the problem; if I’m going to be playing music from multiple composers over multiple eras and styles, I need an instrument that can sound equally good with all of them.

I have an upright from right around the turn of the 20th century that I love. Deep action, loud, boomy bass, bright and sharp baritone, with a slightly too thin and hollow upper register. It’s great for rock and roll, honky-tonk, and some classical pieces (it actually plays a mean and dark Moonlight Sonata). However, it’s really hard to play and practice a lot of things on it, because the instrument stands out too much in ways that detract from the playing and the piece.

I was recently listening to LvB’s Op. 2/1 & Op. 49/1 by different players: Brendel (1990s), Kempff (1950s) & Brautigam (2000s); the last one on a new fortepiano constructed based on a 1802 model. While the timbral difference in the latter is astounding, I do feel that authentic instruments don’t provide the gravitas suitable for substantial Beethoven sonatas. Now, maybe my sensibilities have simply been shaped by the modern performance tradition, but it’s not clear, especially given Beethoven’s circumstances, how strongly his compositional goals were tied to the nuances of the timbre prevalent then. And thanks to the patronage of piano manufacturers, he was direct witness to the evolving piano and probably anticipated the changing character of the instrument. He was also mindful of the endurance of his ouevre in posterity (cf. his remarks on the Razumovsky quartets to the violinist Radicati: “not meant for you but for a later age”), and thus not as fixated on their contemporary realization.

OTOH, for Haydn and Mozart, fortepiano renditions are wonderful.

I have a really awesome piano from the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it is in horrible disrepair. But I love the booming bass that almost sounds like a it is being plucked by a bass player. The bass booms. I’ve played on a repaired version of it, and it was magnificent. One of the few classical pieces I know by memory is Fur Elise, and I loved that penultimate section with the booming repeated As.

I know quite a lot of people that are going out of their way to restore old pianos. It’s becoming a bit of fad, like old amps and guitars. I really like it.

As for the thing Eonwe says: I’ve always thought that’s where electronics will be able to shine: to make one instrument sound like several different ones. I can imagine companies paying big bucks to sample these older instruments to create a bunch of different, yet natural-sounding piano sounds.

This article looks really cool - I can’t wait to dig in. Thanks for the tip!

I’ve read a few books on piano work - The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is really cool about quirky old pianos; A Grand Obession is about this woman who gets, well, obsessed with recreating the tone she heard in the shop on the same piano in her home…

I attended a concert featuring Mozart played on fortepiano, including the Concerto in F Major for three pianos and orchestra, K. 242 (“Lodron”). The fortepiano is a far smaller and lighter instrument than the modern grand piano. The range is smaller and the volume softer; the tone also decays much faster. The timbre varies across the keyboard: the higher notes tinkle while the the lower notes jangle. While this is ideal for playing Mozart’s music, it’s not something you’d want to use to play, for instance, Beethoven or Chopin.

That was fascinating - thank you. I just included an article in the new issue of ***teemings***on a rockabilly guitarist and was trying to the same type of structure that is in that article - where it includes snippets of music and then describes what the author wants you to hear about them. It is hard to do; this writer does a good job with it.

Very informative. Again, as a guitarist, I have a deep appreciation about how the parameters of an instrument influence what I play and create on it. Some guitars have a certain tone or playability that directly shapes what I play and how I explore. I can only imagine how that would be true on a far more complex instrument like a piano as it was evolving in construction and design preference…

Thank you very much for posting a link to this article, it is fascinating. I’ll take this opportunity to post a link to Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History, by Arthur Loesser. A great read and richer and more interesting than one could possibly suppose. I never imagined a history of a musical instrument could serve to tell so much about society as this one does.

In one of Calvin Trillin’s food books he talks about sampling gazpacho at a neighborhood gathering and discoursing learnedly to those around him about how this gazpacho differed from classically prepared gazpacho, all the while slurping down large quantities of soup. It eventually occurred to him that the key difference with this gazpacho was that it tasted better.

I feel the same about classical music played on modern instruments as opposed to “authentic” period instruments. The modern ones sound better.

Did you listen to the end of the Appassionata in that article? I don’t think the modern versions I have sounds anything like it at all.

Are there digital pianos that play the sounds of different period pianos or of different makers? I’ve seen them with different instruments, but haven’t looked closely to see if they have this type of nuance built in.

From a guitar standpoint the answer is clearly Yes and clearly No.

  • Yes: there are digital modeling amps that come with dozens of settings like “1964 Vox AC30 Top Boost” or “1950’s Fender Tweed” etc. - that actually do a decent job of getting in the ballpark for the basic tonal profile. I have to assume that keyboards, which are far easier to work with as digital triggers can do that, too.

  • No: you can’t, however, mimic the touch dynamics of the real deal. Reading about and listening to that Appassionata snippet (**Zsofia **- I agree with you) - EVERYTHING about how that sounds is due to the limitations/characteristics of that particular piano. When you have an instrument that can only be hit so hard, or that you have to work the pedals just so, it DEFINES your playing. It will still be your voice but your voice interpreted on that tool. A digital modeling tool simply can’t replicate that level/nature/nuance of responsiveness. Now, granted, you have to be a pretty accomplished player to geek out about those subtleties, but they are huge if you know exactly what you are trying to get from the instrument…

The article also points out some of the physical issues with playing on modern pianos - the pedalling on the Moonlight, your ability to run your fingers down the keys, etc. There are some things you just can’t physically do on a piano that has certain characteristics, just like you can’t bang the hell out of a harpsichord (and it wouldn’t make it any louder anyway.)

Huge disclaimer - I am not a period instrument guy. I avoid most early music/original instruments groups because I prefer the sound of modern instruments, and the performance is far more important, to me, than the use of an antique instrument that no longer sounds the way it did to the person who first played it.

One of the things from that article that baffled me was the following statement -

Michael Fredrick can’t have ever done a concert tour, and doesn’t seem to be able to put himself in the position of an Alfred Brendel, or Lang Lang, or Radu Lupu. Concert pianists do not travel with their own instruments - it’s the responsibility of the concert presenter to provide a suitable instrument. In some cases, the performer may specify one make, either because of preference or, in some cases, because of an exclusive contract with a piano maker.
Would you want to arrive in Toronto on the morning of the performance to discover that the piano has a shallow action and a delicate touch? The article even said -

So instead of checking out the piano for the concert in an hour, our pianist is now trying to figure out what repertoire he can actually use without breaking this poor, delicate creature that Roy Thompson Hall has saddled him with. Out goes the Liszt, the Rachmaninoff, the Messiaen - we now have an all Mozart concert. If all the concert venues had instruments with radically different touches, sounds, sustains, etc., pianists would just stop touring. That, in a nutshell, is the rationale for what Michael Frederick calls ‘standardization’.

I’ll put it a different way - in my opinion, Mozart sounds way better on a modern piano than Shostakovitch would sound on one of those period things.

It’s also funny because I remember the anecdotes from jazz musicians about some of the horrible instruments they got stuck with. Oscar Peterson talked about one bar where the owner asked how he liked the piano. Peterson shrugged and said it was okay, but it was badly out of tune. The bar owner responded with “Whaddya mean it’s out of tune? I just had it painted last week!”

Paul Desmond talked about showing up in a car to some new roadhouse in New Jersey - the guy that owned the place said “So you’re the Dave Brubeck piano quartet. Where’s your piano?” They played as a trio that night…

A friend of mine, with whom I have toured doing school shows, has an outstanding memory for venues, and keeps a checklist of the quality of their instruments in a little black book. PSO stands for Piano-Shaped Object, POS needs little explanation, DRQ’d means Digital ReQuired… And it’s quite a remarkable experience, after a few weeks of hearing Magic Flute played in a piano reduction on school instruments of varying quality to suddenly have to do a show with the digital keyboard. All that subtle stuff that you wouldn’t even be able to put your finger on (Ha! I slay myself!) like bringing out the viola line in the midst of a set of block chords goes out the window - the instrument can’t respond to the discreet extra weight being given to the inner voice without blaring.

You might be able to duplicate that Moonlight Sonata pedal effect on a digital keyboard by getting into the MIDI settings and tweaking the length of the decay, but personally, I think it’d be a total waste of time - on a real acoustic instrument, you put the pedal down, you play the note and the other strings resonate in sympathy with the vibration of the other note. On a digital, the pedal just elongates the note - no sympathetic resonance. It was a great discovery for me a couple of years ago, learning some Brahms on the theatre’s Bösendorfer - all these places where the dynamic was marked pp, and yet, the music cried out for that full rich sound. On that instrument, every string resounded beautifully even though I was only striking one A, one E and one C# about a tenth apart. A full, rich chord and yet, pp.

So there’s a crabby old curmudgeon’s point of view - I find it interesting, but I can’t say any of the performances on the period instruments made me want to hear more of the recording, whereas the Brendel, Lupu and Arturo Bendetti Michelangeli certainly did. They all happen to be recordings that I’ve had for years, in fact.

I really appreciate the insider’s perspective Le Ministre. From a practical standpoint, your assertions stand. I think there is place for both and it is fascinating as a piano outsider to listen to the snippets and hear the differences an instrument can make - and then hear you describe out the differences can be a real pain in a professional setting…

Retired Piano Technician* speaking:

FWIW, the technical term “PSO” is commonly used by Piano Technicians. And if you’re wondering, in PianoTech jargon “POS” stands for “Particle Of Sewage.”
(* 32 years full-time professional PT, retired five years ago)


I saw that interview in 1976(?); Peterson was being interviewed by Andre Previn, and IIRC he said it was Art Tatum who’d had that exchange with the bar owner. I’d love to know how Tatum responded.


Thanks for the link.

Although for practical terms, yes, standardized instruments are a good thing. I’m glad this museum is there and people still them.

Have you read the book**A Grand Obsession**by Perry Knize? I would be VERY interested in your take. She goes through so much to try to get her piano to sound like it did in the store and goes into a lot of detail about working with tuners and other piano techs. I don’t want to give away how it plays out, but when she finally gets it sounding right the solution seems obvious to a guitarist…

I bet you have a few stories you could tell!

Haven’t read it, but now I’m interested.