In Search of Lost Sounds
Why you've never really heard the "Moonlight" Sonata.
The last piano Debussy owned was a German Blüthner, but the pianos he grew up on were French Erards. Our final comparison will be his dazzling Feux d'artifices by Arturo Bendetti Michelangeli on, yet again, a Steinway
then by Dmitri Shteinberg on a marvelously brilliant-sounding 1877 Erard.
A theme Michael Frederick often returns to is standardization. Why should everything be the same? Why should three or four piano makers, however splendid, especially the Steinways that inhabit the majority of concert halls, dominate the scene? It's like the beer situation 30 years ago, when you had about a half-dozen standard brands to choose from. Now we have myriad brews flowing around the land—the way it was in the 19th century.
In music, the situation works something like this. In classical as in other varieties, most of the time people hear music in recordings. When people go to a live concert, they tend to want it to sound like a recording. When you're a classical pianist, you get ahead by winning competitions, where they tend to want you to play as perfectly, and as impersonally, as a recording. And they want you to sound pretty much like everybody else, which means you play a Steinway, as in most recordings. And Steinways are voiced to an even, velvety sound from top to bottom. The number of companies making a dent in Steinway's supremacy—these days mainly Bösendorfer, Baldwin, Bechstein—have receded steadily (except for home sales, where cheaper Korean pianos rule). The standardization of pianos and of piano performing are two sides of the same coin, and the main culprit is recordings.
To be sure, Steinways are tremendous instruments and have earned their glory. But should any one brand be that dominant? A modern piano is a matter of iron and steel and high-tech and some degree of assembly line. In the days of Beethoven and Schubert, it was a matter of one man or woman (such as the legendary Nannette Streicher) with hammers, saws, planes, and chisels, and there were myriad visions of what a piano could be. Stephen Porter notes that now in Europe a number of artisanal makers are creating first-rate reproductions of old instruments. There are fewer pursuing that trade here. In America, these days, we mainly have Michael Frederick and his Historic Piano Collection, our own testament to the value of diversity and the subtle splendors of low-tech.