Interview for Hydobny Zivot, Bratislava

Interview for Hydobny Zivot, Bratislava, November 2010

Welcome once again to Bratislava. What pianos are you bringing?
(P.McNulty) Stein 1788, Walter 1802, Graf 1819 and Pleyel 1830.
Please tell us what you think is the reason for the growing interest in the fortepiano? More precisely – what can this instrument do for the player and the audience?
(V.Sofronitsky) I believe that the main attraction for musicians and the public alike is how well the fortepiano plays music by composers who were writing for these instruments. As today’s builders explore the different old masters associated with particular composers, the symbiosis between composer and instrument has become strikingly apparent. The touch and tone color of the 1819 Graf, for example, are fascinating in Schubert, but very much out of place in C.P.E. Bach. In his turn, the 1780 Stein is ideal for C.P.E. Bach, but sounds a little silly playing a Schubert Impromptu. The idea that the music stays the same on any piano doesn’t hold in this comparison, and our idea is that the meaning of a piece communicates best on the appropriate piano. There are pedal effects in the early Romantic pianos which don’t exist on the Yamaha or Steinway, and much is lost with these modern pianos when they try to play the una corda, due corde, tutte le corde indicated in the Hammerklavier sonata. Similarly, there are many passages of Schubert where subtle shifts of color between the different moderator and una corda combinations are pure magic. These effects are readily created on the instruments associated with late Beethoven and Schubert, while it requires a tremendous effort for the Steinway/Yamaha artist to suggest a similar impression. Given the magical effect of a Walter piano, say, playing the opening movement of the Moonlight sonata, audience members typically exclaim they’ve never been so moved or so convinced by this music.
Do you really think Mozart’s or Beethoven’s music sounds better on historical piano? 
(V.S.) Personally, yes. Prokoviev and Gershwin, on the other hand, sound ideal on a Steinway, Bartok on Bosendorfer and Scriabin sounds best on his preferred Bechstein.
You are bringing with you 4 copies of different historical fortepianos. What is interesting about your instruments? 
(P.M.) What is interesting is the different tonal idea of the various periods represented. One doesn’t get the impression that Stein made an experiment that led to Walter’s experiment and so on through the ages up to last week’s modern grand (or even more modern digital piano), but that each builder gave a convincing and definitive character to his design, each very different from the others.

What is different between your new instruments and originals? 
(P.M.)The difference between my pianos and those of my masters is that my instruments are new. Pianos, unlike violins, don’t age very well, and the best approach to learning their sound is not to restore them, which is usually destructive and often disappointing, but to reproduce them, using the appropriate materials and proportions. It has become a lifelong detective story as more information is gathered in my field, and more specialists are making appropriate wire and leather and felt.
Do modern pianists have interest in your instruments? 
(P.M.)Today, “period performance” is merging with accepted performace, giving the most encouraging results. Lang Lang is performing Beethoven under Harnoncourt’s baton and Viktoria Mullova gives beautiful performances of Bach suites on gut strings. I think that the awareness of the fortepiano among modern pianists has long been understood, but it is only recently that accurate, high-quality reproductions have become widely available. More modern pianists play fortepianos not only for their private researches, like Mitsuko Uchida, but also in concerts, as do the sisters Labeque, Vladimir Feltsman and Janusz Olejniczak. I have just heard from Warsaw Chopin festival that Martha Argerich and Maria Joao Pires performed on historical fortepianos there this year.
What do you think modern musicians can gain from playing fortepianos?
(V.S.) The pianists I know who have spent many years playing both historical pianos and modern pianos (among those the outstanding pianist Ronald Brautigam) say that their modern piano sound and touch has been fundamentally changed and refined by learning to play the fortepiano. Given the power of the imagination, a pianist who studies these period pianos can learn transforming insights into keyboard playing, and make a better job of creating illusion, which has always been the great thing when playing any stringed percussion keyboard instrument.
How many pianos have you made and where one can find your pianos?
(P.M.) There are many musicians who have our instruments, in all parts of the world, including Hong Kong, Australia, Japan and America. Among their owners are fortepianists such as Paul Badura-Skoda, Malcolm Bilson, Kris Bezuidenhout and Ronald Brautigam, and conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The best music schools are interested in fortepianos, and I have instruments at Harvard; the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy in London; Paris, Den Haag, Vienna, Basel, Amsterdam, Trossingen, Hannover and Zurich Conservatories; Chopin Institute in Warsaw and many others. More and more opera houses understand that it is impossible to perform Mozart operas without fortepiano, so I have my instruments in Glyndebourne, Oslo and Melbourne opera houses.
Your instruments are also good looking, with expensive veneers, ormolu and inlays. Is this historical, and are people attracted to this?
(P.M.) Pianos were made for the aspiring middle class and for the rich — the cost of a Pleyel concert grand was equivalent to the price of a good house in Paris. The most important part is the sound, but respecting the wishes of my masters also means doing my best to recreate the appearance as high-quality furniture. The sophistication and taste of furniture in this period is breathtaking, and I am lucky to be in a place where specialists in historical furniture restoration, metalwork and carving still practice a continuous tradition.
Where have you performed recently and what are your plans? 
(V.S.) We just finished a three-week tour in Latvia and Estonia, where we had uniformly a “WOW” reaction, inviting multiple press, radio and TV interviews. As Lauri Väinmaa, the director of Tallinn piano festival, wrote … thank you once again for playing in Tallinn and demonstrating Paul’s wonderful instruments! Your concert was a real eye-opener for many who were present… Our Baltic tour was a very interesting practical experience, driving with 4 pianos, moving them every day, tuning and playing in different cities. This made me feel like an 18-century musician. It went very smoothly – organizers were surprised that it was so easy for them — and I am most encouraged to plan other long tours. This summer we also have also been at music festivals in France(Le Touquet), Germany (Klang & Raum, Irsee; Alte Musik, Berlin) and Norway (Oslo Chamber Music Festival). A very special event was our Pleyel piano inaugural at the Warsaw Chopin festival, where I performed with cellist Sergei Istomin, and other concerts, Janusz Olejniczak, for one, playing our piano. This summer I also played 12 Mozart concertos with the Period Orchestra of Warsaw Chamber Opera. I had recorded all Mozart fortepiano concertos with them. After Bratislava, the biggest events will be at the Sumida Triphony hall in Tokyo, where we will be flying our pianos, and my London Wigmore hall debut.
What new piano making projects do you have?
(P.M.) I am reproducing Liszt’s 1846 Boisselot, the piano which he used for his 1847 Russian tour, and thereafter kept in his house Weimar for almost 40 years, writing years later to Boisselot that this piano was still his daily partner in his ‘battles with the music of the past, present and future.’ It is made at the order of Weimar Stichting and will be used for the 2011 Liszt bicentenary events. The project is inviting great public interest, and a documentary is being filmed by German TV. The original is now in our house; it is silent and will remain so for structural reasons, but it is my daily partner as I build my copy. Boisselot is unknown territory, but one thinks of Liszt’s ‘Totentanz’, which was revised in the period 1847-1853, as Liszt settled down in Weimar with his new piano.

Sound and construction specifics of different fortepiano types
The STEIN has a very clear and transparent tone, which seems to be small, but actually carries very well, even better than later Viennese pianos with their bigger, rounder sound. Stein has a pure sound, with more overtones to ‘cut ‘ through the orchestra. It has only two strings per note. The soundboard is very thin in the discant and not much thicker elsewhere, giving the immediacy and charm of a lute. The hammer is proportional to the soundboard, being very light and fast. The simple action Stein designed repeats very well, allowing very clear articulation with many gradations from shortest sounding note to over legato. The tone changes from very gentle in discant, like Zerlina in Mozart opera, and deep in the bass. It enables great changes from gentle character to “drum-like” forte. It is possible to pedal chromatic passages without getting “dirt” but only beautiful “aura” around the passage. The keyboard span is 5 octaves and usual tuning is 421.3hz (Stein’s extant tuning fork), but can be tuned safely at 440hz. It is excellent for CPE Bach and Haydn and ideal for early Mozart.

WALTER As was described in Vienna at the times when Stein and Walter were the best makers in town, Walter was the best for playing virtuoso and loud, while Stein was the choice for those who play “for the soul.” Walter’s hammer check prevents the hammer bouncing back, providing security in fortissimo playing. The Walter soundboard is slightly thicker, the ribs arranged to produce a warm tone, and the hammers are bigger. The sound in the upper register can be compared to an alto singer as opposed to the‘soubrette” soprano of Stein’s upper register. In addition to the damper knee lever it has a moderator stop, which brings a thin cloth between hammers and strings, changing color of the sound to a velvet fog. The change in color is pronounced and can be very beautiful in a whole movement, for example, first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata.

GRAF, in Chopin’s words, was considered by most musicians in Vienna to be the best maker. The sound is perfect for Schubert — it is full and warm, but also transparent. This piano has pedals, like a modern piano. The moderator pedal gives a very ‘breath-like” sound, as if the whole body of piano is breathing with sound like the ocean’s waves in calm weather. There is an una corda pedal, which means “one string” – the whole keyboard moving to the right so that the hammer strikes only one string, the others sounding in sympathy. This gives a most beautiful, gentle bell-like sound, especially wonderful for Schubert. The hammers are leather covered and very delicate – it is quite amazing that they are capable of producing such a big Forte. There are other pedals, such as double moderator, due corde, bassoon (presses a roll of silken paper to the strings in the low register) and Turkish music, which operates bells, drum and cymbal crash.

PLEYEL is a French piano — full-bodied, a room-filling sonority strikingly different from the Viennese style. This is helped by the fact that the piano has an open bottom, not closed, as was practiced in Vienna. The sound is round and warm and allows a kind of playing almost without attack, which is especially beautiful in una corda. It can be played so that it doesn’t completely damp, giving a warm haze, the main notes nevertheless very clear and transparent. It has only a damper and una chorda pedals. It is ideal for Chopin. The strings are thick, the soundboard as well, and the hammers are proportionally fatter. There are iron bars and a massive oak frame to resist the string tension. This is the biggest piano possible to make with iron strings. Ten years later English steel wire was introduced, and piano design changed abruptly to a much heavier construction.

Back to previous page