Love the piano, not sure about the sound

Love the piano, not sure about the sound


norman lebrecht

April 30, 2015

In Budapest on other business, I stopped by Franz Liszt’s old place to examine his keyboard collection. No artist on any instrument did more to challenge manufacturers to make improvements to what he played. Over Liszt’s lifetime, largely driven by him, the piano matured from tinkle to thunder. Here’s what’s left in the apartment:

Two US-made Chickerings, the summit of 19th-century technology, still play thunderously well. An 1873 Bösendorfer, whose Viennese manufacturer was Liszt’s close friend, is distinctly more anaemic.

Concert grands aside, Liszt packed his rooms with every variety of keyboard: a groaning harmonium, for organ-like sonorities; a mute keyboard, for keeping the fingers supple on long journeys; a glass piano that pings out perfect pitch, never needing to be retuned. Best of all is a Bösendorfer keyboard that slides out of his desktop, relieving Liszt of the need to walk across the room to find a chord while writing a score. It is the prototype of the modern executive’s retractable computer keyboard, an ingenious romantic convenience.

Away from the apartment, I attended the first concert performance of Gergely Boganyi’s revolutionary new piano, the first to dispense with a third leg, a wooden soundboard and a traditional shape. If looks could kill, it would have knocked me dead on the spot. But what about the sound? you ask. I write about it in the new issue of Standpoint. Read the full essay here.




  • william osborne says:

    Wish there were a recording of this new piano that shows how it relates to today’s norms built around thundering pianos. Boganyi by necessity thunders his Chopin, even though Chopin was a relatively introverted person with a smaller sound who preferred the intimacy of salons.

    The grandness of the concert hall is an increasingly outdated 19th century idea that will die along with orchestras and traditional opera. Will this allow a return to more intimate uses of the piano and the development of keyboard instruments to match? Will this lead to new forms of composition? Or will the traditional keyboard, and thus the piano, die along with most other instruments as objects that are too grotesquely unergonomic to survive in a world of evermore refined digital control? Is this new piano just a more polished horse and buggy?

  • Michael Endres says:

    Here is a link to over 40 minutes of soundfiles recorded by Gergely Bogany.
    By using headphones one might get a reasonably realistic impression of the piano’s qualities .

  • william osborne says:

    Interesting recordings of the instrument. It’s probably just my imagination but I hear some sort of similarity in the overtones to my wife’s telescoping, carbon fiber alphorn – not wood, but still a pleasant sound. I’m totally out of my element with the piano repertoire, and thus not at all sure, but I’m wondering if the Franz Liszt: Legende No. 1 is mislabeled on the above website?

  • Petros LInardos says:

    Judging from the sound I hear in the recordings, the Bogany might serve well 20th century works that benefit from sharp and clear sound, such as Bartok’s Allegro Barbara or Prokofiev’s Toccata. Even 18th century music might benefit from the clarity, though not necessarily from the sharpness. But I’d take traditional high end French or Austro-German pianos for 19th century music any day.

    Mr. Lebrecht’s article has lots of interesting insights. But I don’t agree with his argument that “after Liszt, progress stopped”. Lots of great pianos, with different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, were made until at least well into the early 20th century. In Ashburnham, in central Massachusetts (USA), there is a remarkable collection of historic pianos from the late 18th to the early 20th century, the Frederick Collection, where visitors are allowed to play them. When I did, I realized that there is no one-size-fits-all piano, even if the omnipresence of (admittedly excellent) Steinway concert grands may mislead us to think so. For instance, I played Chopin on a Pleyel like the one he had, I could easily produce more nuanced dynamics than on a modern piano – maybe even bring out the introverted qualities of this music that William Osborne rightly mentioned in this thread.

    Progress still continues, even if the Faziolis or the Bogany may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is indeed much more variety around. Steinway grands are mostly a convenience’s asset for touring pianists: you know beforehand precisely what you wil get which is practical and reduces stress levels.

      I once played on a Gaveau from ca. 1880 at Frits Janmaats restoration studio in Amsterdam which had a double string system, the second system unconnected to the hammers but vibrating with every key pressed. The result was like playing on a string orchestra; a chord would vibrate much longer, with the right pedal, than any other grand in existence. Strange that such invention has not caught-on.

  • mr oakmount says:

    Well, it certeinly looks like something that would boldly go where no piano has gone before.