Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

This article was written a number of years ago when the Bechstein company was about to bite the dust. Happily, and unusually for a piano maker in the 21st century, fortunes have been reversed and Bechstein pianos are now made again.

Berceuse For Bechstein

How many of us have had that experience, perhaps an early and lasting memory, of seeing in the corner of some old aunt's drawing room a tall, heavy, black box supporting an army of fading photographs which, when opened up, displayed a line of yellow keys and the mysterious, tarnished letters - C. BECHSTEIN. Whilst the Steinway gleams on the world's most glamourous concert-platforms evoking the image of a new Rolls-Royce, the Bechstein seems rather to suggest that vintage car under blankets in the garage, whether sparkling with care or a sad shell of rust and dust.

Last year saw the demise of the Bechstein Company, home of the piano for which the Wigmore Hall was originally built, and which Brahms Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin played and used when composing. From the company's foundation in 1856 in Berlin until the Second World War the Bechstein piano played a major role in European musical life, from concert halls to the salons of patrons and socialites, from the studios of famous artists and teachers to the practise rooms of students. However, decline was swift following the Bechstein family's friendship and support of Hitler, and the firm's location in the divided city of Berlin during the years following the war. The bad will of the 40s and the uneven workmanship of the 50s and beyond made the piano's continuing success an impossibility. In addition, good, cheap pianos from the Far East began to appear in the showrooms of the West, and, as with cars, offered a serious challenge in price and quality to the middle-range European instruments.

Taste, too, had changed in the post-war years. Audiences and ears were becoming used to the greater brilliance and penetration of the Steinway, especially in concerto repertoire, where it seemed a better match for the string section of the orchestra, now more frequently using steel rather than gut for their strings. The Steinway was always at the forefront in the development of the piano. The company was founded in 1853 in New York by Henry Steinway and three of his sons and within two years had developed the iron frame which came to be the standard skeleton for all serious pianos. There followed a string of patents, including the introduction of the Capo d'Astro Bar in 1875 enabling the piano to utilize larger, more powerful hammers resulting in a bigger sound. These developments continued into the twentieth century and gave the Steinway its trailblazing image. The Bechstein's more delicate nuances and shallower, slower action-response made it less suitable too for the new virtuoso techniques which composer-pianists such as Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, were developing; and, in addition, the recording studios had discovered that the clearer tone of the Steinway was more suitable for their ever-improving techniques. Once music colleges and concert-halls began using the Steinway with an increasing exclusivity a monopoly came into being, excused only by the extraordinary quality and beauty of the Steinway pianos. A notable exception was Jorge Bolet who preferred to play Bechsteins when in Europe.

But earlier in the century there was a genuine variety of opinions about the relative merits of the great piano firms. A pianist like Horowitz would reject the Bechstein as being better fitted for chamber music, and became a loyal Steinway artist from the start of his career. He was only once seen publicly playing a piano other than a Steinway when he played Scriabin's Bechstein in Moscow, captured by the television cameras. Whereas Schnabel referred to the Steinway as being, "terribly loud", and insisted on taking two Bechstein concert grands plus a technician to America when he visited there before the war. After the Nazis had come to power and he was compelled to use Steinways in America, he asked for their sound and action to be doctored and made closer to the feel of his beloved Bechstein. Comparing the playing styles of these two pianists gives an over-generalized but valid indication of the differences between their preferred pianos. Many artists whose techniques had been developed on European pianos found the Steinway a handicap. Their whole approach to tonal control and colouring relied on the horizontal motion of the hand across a feather-light key rather than the greater vertical pressure required by the weightier actions of the American instruments. Moritz Rosenthal, the renowned Liszt pupil, is an interesting case in point. One of his trademarks was fast, fleet figuration exploiting extreme soft dynamics, and he claimed that it was impossible for him to achieve his effects on the Steinway piano.

Another wider social issue is relevant to the collapse of many piano companies. The whole notion of the piano as an instrument for the home, a magnet drawing friends around it for evenings of amateur entertainment, quickly disappeared in the post-war period. The piano seemed like just another relic from the Victorian age, which, like an old armoire, took up too much musty space in the newly designed houses of the period. Its elephantine size, its jaundiced ivories, simply couldn't compete with the stampeding arrival of that smaller box, the television, with its bright, passive images. It was so much more appealing than Aunt Maud's arthritic fingers struggling with Chaminade's Autumne, or Uncle Harry's repeated attempts to find The Lost Chord. So the pianos went to the antique shops, Maud and Harry went to the nursing home, and, suddenly, a chapter of European life was finished. The piano seemed part of the baggage of Imperialism, and the guitar's six strings and keyboards which could be plugged in (although requiring more sensitive ears to be plugged as well) suited the spring-cleaning mood of the age. So unfortunately the baby was thrown out with the Bechstein, and an unswimmable gulf was formed between the professional pianist and the now passive audience member, a gulf which has deeply affected concert life over the last few decades and seriously threatens its future , as audience numbers decrease steadily.

So has that piano which was by appointment to his Majesty, Emperor William I of Prussia gone the way of the country which he ruled? Has that black box in the corner of the drawing-room become its own coffin, awaiting only the death of its owner before it is dragged to the junk shop without even the last-annointing of some furniture polish? - Last week a friend of mine phoned me, "Stephen, I know you're looking for a second piano. I've just seen a beauty - a big, black instrument with a gorgeous tone. It's a .... Bechstein."

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Stephen Hough