Barenboim builds a new piano

He is launching a piano that combines the power of modern instruments with the transparency of the kind that Liszt played on (coincidentally, I had just contemplated the same topic in a Standpoint essay). Here’s the press release:

barenboim piano

 

Daniel Barenboim unveiled a ground-breaking new piano at a special event at London’s Royal Festival Hall today (12 noon, 26 May, 2015), in advance of his Schubert recital series there.

 

Conceived and commissioned by Barenboim himself, the Barenboim-Maene Concert Grand piano was developed and built by esteemed Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene, with support from Steinway & Sons.

 

The new Barenboim-Maene piano combines the touch, stability, and power of a modern piano with the transparent sound quality and distinguishable colour registers of more historic instruments. While on the outside it does not differ significantly in looks from a modern concert grand, most of its components – including the braces, soundboard, cast-iron frame, bass strings, keyboard and action – have been specially-designed and tailor made, and the positioning of others, such as the hammers and strings, is radically different.

 

Barenboim was inspired to create a new piano after playing Franz Liszt’s restored grand piano during a trip to Siena in September 2011. Struck by the vital differences in sound of an instrument constructed with straight, parallel strings rather than the diagonal crossed ones of a contemporary instrument, he set out to create a brand new instrument that combines the best of the old and the new and offers a real alternative for pianists and music-lovers in the 21st century.

 

Barenboim discussed his idea with Steinway & Sons who introduced him to Chris Maene, who had also wanted to create a brand new instrument inspired by the past. The two maestri were able to combine their respective musical and technical expertise to begin work on their shared vision. Just 15 months ago, Barenboim’s personal technician Michel Brandjes tested several 19th-century historic grand pianos from Chris Maene’s collection and some of the remarkable replicas made by him. His findings and reflections on the sound and technical aspects of the instruments were discussed with Barenboim who then commissioned Maene to work a detailed concept for the new instrument which was then developed, constructed, tested and revealed today.

 

Daniel Barenboim says:

“The transparency and tonal characteristics of the traditional straight-strung instruments is so different from the homogenous tone produced by the modern piano across its entire range. The clearly distinguishable voices and colour across its registers of Liszt’s piano inspired me to explore the possibility of combining these qualities with the power, looks, evenness of touch, stability of tuning and other technical advantages of the modern Steinway. I am so delighted to have worked with Chris Maene, who had the same dream and I must pay tribute to his incredible technical expertise and his deep respect for both tradition and innovation. I must also thank Steinway & Sons, for bringing us together and for delivering key components for our new instrument, thus enabling a perfect match of the traditional qualities and modern advantages.”

 

Chris Maene says:

“All my life I have been building replicas of legendary historic instruments. But for many years I have also been dreaming of building a new type of concert grand. It has always surprised me how the fantastic and unique sound diversity of the grand pianos of the 19th century disappeared. By the end of the 19th century many piano builders tried to copy the success of Steinway & Sons. In this process, they all ignored the straight-strung grand pianos with their unique sound characteristics. As a result, the 20th century offered us very similar instruments in regards of construction and sound. Therefore it has never been my goal to build another copy of a Steinway, but rather to make a different instrument in which I could incorporate all my expertise about building historic instruments. It has been a true honour to be able to work with Maestro Daniel Barenboim. I hold the Maestro in very high regard and was delighted to discover our mutual interest in straight-strung pianos. His input, confidence and order made it possible to build this new instrument: a concert grand for the 21st century. For me it is truly a dream come true.”

 

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  • Blane Harford says:

    It’s astonishing to me that, after a Google news search on this event at the Festival Hall, not one news source thought to record Barenboim playing the thing so we could hear it.
    Unbelievable.

  • Tim Benjamin says:

    The big question is, then, does he have it tuned in Equal Temperament or something more interesting (and indeed authentic such as one of the “Well” but not equal temperaments)?

    I recently had my piano tuned to a Valotti temperament, and playing things like Chopin (as opposed to C17th/18th music that might be more commonly associated with different temperaments) is a real revelation, especially when he has one of his dramatic adventures into peculiar keys. I understand that ET was not standard until well into the 20th century.

    If you have the chance of asking, Norman, I’d be interested to know the answer!

  • Richard Carlisle says:

    Any word on when/how we’ll get a sample listen?

  • Petros LInardos says:

    This is great news. The more experimentation with piano making, the better. I hope there will be a domino effect. Can’t wait to hear a sample.

  • Saul Davis says:

    In other words, he made it more like a harp. So listen to the harp more, and the piano less. We’ve had way too much of the piano, and not nearly enough of the harp.

  • rodney says:

    yeah . like what does it sound like?

  • john humphreys says:

    Straight strung clearly much better…pure, undiluted sonority. Broadwood manufactured a wonderful ‘barless’ grand before the 1st World War..no cross bracing to obstruct the sound waves. Too expensive to continue with after 1918. We’d all have straight strung pianos but for the space requirements they impose….

  • Herbert Pauls says:

    What a wonderful idea!

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Wonderful of Maestro Barenboim to resurrect this manner of making pianos in the 21st century. I look forward to seeing, hearing and playing one of these new creations!

  • Susan Bruckner says:

    Exciting news! When/how can we hear it & what are the dimensions?

  • Luk Vaes says:

    Barenboim did not build a new piano. Chris Maene did.

  • Hilary says:

    I’m going this evening (choir stalls)and will report back my impression of the new piano.

  • Paul Joschak says:

    He should just have chosen a Blüthner…

  • James McCarty says:

    My guess is that Chris was trying to incorporate the virtues of straight stringing with the increased volume of a larger, heavier instrument capable of filling modern concert halls. One wonders how stable such an instrument might be. And why not make it look nice rather than dressing it up like a plain black Stoneweigh?

  • Thomas Mansell says:

    I’d very much like to get beyond the press releases and hear some expert opinion.

    I heard it in action last night at the Royal Festival Hall. The distinction is indeed excellent, and I think the bass was particularly clear. Apart from that, though, I was underwhelmed. I thought the sound overall was lacking warmth and cohesion. Perhaps there are advantages (other than economy of space and expense) to the cross-strung system? After all, if this technology was around since Liszt’s lifetime, then why have so few been subsequently made?

    I wonder if it also makes the job of piano tuners more difficult, or at least different. Last night in D.537 there was one high note in particular that sounded out of tune. (I am sure they were using tempered tuning, however.)

    Interestingly, there was no mention of the piano in the programme. I wonder at what point it became clear that the new piano would be ready for this recital series, and when Barenboim took the decision to use it. I realise that every piano is different (and some concert pianists take a particular piano around the world with them) – but it felt to me that Barenboim had underestimated how long it would take to fully acquaint himself with the new instrument. Has anything been changed in the action itself?

    • John Borstlap says:

      It seems that cross-stringing enhances the fullness of tone. Somewhere in the late 19C there were grand pianos built by Gaveau which compensated for the thinness of straight-stringed pianos: they had a straight-stringed frame, and underneath another straight-stringed frame, so a double system of strings really like two pianos built into one. The keyboard was operating only one of the frames, but the dampers operated both frames. It meant that when a key was struck, the second system was also free to reverberate, with the result that the tone ‘sang’ much longer and ‘deeper’ than ‘normal’ (cross-stringed) pianos. Unfortunately this idea was not taken-on and it remained an exception.

  • John Borstlap says:

    In Amsterdam, Frits Janmaat who runs an Erard piano restoration studio, has already pioneered for many years with the ‘old sound’, advocating the straight stringing for the very reasons Barenboim explains. Where the original mechanics of the instruments have worn-out, he rebuilds them and turning them into a new / old instrument.

  • Phil Schoonmaker says:

    Jury is out until we hear and play it. Beware…humans have always been enamored with “older is better” (often with massive doses of ignorance) and it is fair to ask that if straight-stringing was so great why would all the piano-makers have left it in the dust? Surely someone could have defended it and survived if it was more desirable musically. To provide variety is one thing; to claim superiority is another entirely.

    Warm regards,

    Cross-Strung

  • Feurich says:

    Sounds interesting. However, I think I’l like to hear this new instrument played by another pianist. No matter his reputation, Barenboim has a stiff technique at the piano and is not in my view a good pianist anymore.

    • Hilary says:

      And the RFH is rarely an ideal venue for a piano recital so would prefer to hear elsewhere. However, there’s plenty of light and shade in DB’s playing and a laser beam intellect. My attention rarely wavered.

    • John Borstlap says:

      His technique is weighed-down by his ego.

      • Hilary says:

        My jaw drops if someone tells me they heard Richter live. I’m sure future generations will react the same way when I tell them I heard Barenboim play Schubert at the Royal Festival Hall.
        Awhile back I heard both Barenboim and Goode play the Beethoven op.109 within a week of each other. The latter is of course very fine but there was ultimately a gulf between them.

        • Peter says:

          Difference between Richter and Barenboim is, that Richter until the end always prepared his repertoire by practicing, and also started to use the scores again, when his mind with an older age started to occasionally fail him on recalling the memorized scores. Anybody who has heard Barenboim lately in a piano recital who knows the scores really well can attest to the fact, that the master plays maybe 80% of the notes written, then also plays some which are not written, in a quite genius way 😉 , basically improvises over the musical skeleton still in his mind, while with a little less vanity he could just get out those reading glasses, put the music on the stand and play what is actually written.

          • Hilary says:

            Thanks for that clarification. I did notice some sketchy moments but the signposts and unfolding of the music struck me as being exceptionally persuasive. Would be interesting to hear DB in some repertoire I have a more detailed knowledge of eg. Schoenberg op.11 no.1

  • Deborah Moore says:

    At what cost? And IF successful can it be replicated with any precision?

  • Thomas Petrowitz says:

    I recently saw/heard one of these amazing instruments at Dvorak Hall in Prague where Daniel Barenboim gave a magical performance of Beethoven Sonatas. Bravi Tutti!

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