Mitsuko Uchida can’t find a piano fit for Hamburg’s new hall

The meticulous artist was asked to select one of 12 Steinway grands for Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie.

Apparently, none of them met her exacting requirements – and she is due to give the hall’s first solo recital on January 11, 2017.

What’s to be done?

Apparently, Mitsuko has agreed to test more pianos in the summer, after the hall has undergone further adjustments by its chief acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota.

Fascinating report here (auf Deutsch).

mitsuko uchida steinway test

photo (c) Roland Magunia / HA

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  • I’ve always thought she’s a great pianist, but thanks to this article my esteem for her has plumitted to levels so low you should watch out not to step on it. What an arrogance…

      • Well, a good pianist should be able to play on any piano. Testing 12 Steinways and claiming they are all bad instruments? That is just ridiculous. I’ve heard pianists half her level get beautiful sounds out of an upright Kawai. This is just pure arrogance.

        • As a pianist, it’s not arrogance. There are times when a great pianist simply can’t get the desired tone they want to out of an instrument. Great musicians achieve greatness by exacting cruel standards of perfection on their own playing. Nothing arrogant about deciding an instrument isn’t up to the task.

          • That is completely acceptable when testing 2 or 3 mediocre quality instruments. But saying that about 12 (twelve!) Steinways? Sorry, but I don’t buy it. One Steinways is better than another, OK, but they are still masterpieces one by one. Disapproving 12 of them is just laughable.

          • It’s eccentric for sure. Reminds me of Gould. Strange, but the pianist’s full right. Says nothing about Uchida’s musicality.

        • I don’t know whether you read the article in German or used a translation (which may have resulted in lacking accuracy of certain words) but in the original it is clear that she described the 12 instruments as “unsuited” for a specific purpose in a specific concert hall, which is hardly synonymous with her simply describing 12 instruments as “bad”.
          If I were paying €450.000 for 3 instruments that will have to be acceptable to multiple performers and for various purposes, I’d prefer an overly exacting, even fussy assessment to ‘merely’ selecting a very good instrument that is adequately suited.

          • Sorry, but I simply can’t believe that 12 pianos of very high quality would all be “unsuitable”. These pianos were built by one of the leading companies with the goal of being used in concert halls. Ok, they are new and need to be “played in” a bit. Or maybe there is a key which needs a little more power than the others, but that can be fixed quite easily, you don’t need to change the instrument for that.

            No, it doesn’t say “bad”. But nobody will want to buy these 12 pianos, since Mrs Ushida has put the stamp “unsuitable for concert halls” on them.

            If a company like Steinway asks €450.000 for 3 pianos, you can be damn sure that they are top quality instruments, and that Mrs Ushida’s rejection of them is a personal whim of hers which has nothing to do with the actual instruments.

        • I worked for Steinway Piano Company in NYC and can certainly tell you that out of 12 concert grands, at least one will make the grade! I have noted remarkable differences between pianos made out of the same stock, within weeks of each other. Neither I nor any other piano technician can come up with an adequate explanation for this! It seems that pianos have their own soul, and that is so phenomenally apparent when an artist comes in to test an entire line of them.
          Having said that, this article doesn’t say what factory these 12 pianos were built in. I can only attest to the point that the NYC factory turns out pianos of the utmost quality, through a quality control team that is unwavering. I have, though, played Steinway pianos that were not built in the NYC factory and all of them felt and sounded so unlike the ones we turned out in NYC.
          Seeing as I don’t have all the facts, I cannot brand a pianist as “arrogant” (or otherwise). She has a difficult job ahead. I’m sure that the “right” decision will be made soon enough.

          • I don’t know all of the facts either but I’d be willing to wager that there wasn’t a single New York built Steinway among the 12 (purely based on what city and country in which the pianos’ future home is located) .

    • She was trying to choose three pianos for a concert hall. It’s not like she said they weren’t good enough for her to play. She has played hundreds of Steinway Model Ds, and owns four. Maybe she was looking for three that were amongst the best she has ever played, not just the best three out of twelve. She didn’t even make a choice as she always intended to go back and try others later on.

  • Well, somehow I’m not surprised. Even though a snowball has a greater chance in hell, I would strongly wish that among the three pianos being selected, at least one of them wasn’t a Steinway. Many great concert halls (and also piano competitions) in the world have a Bösendorfer, Yamaha or Fazioli alongside the de facto Steinway. At least having a Bösendorfer in the chamber music hall would reflect the openness that supposes represents the city of Hamburg…

  • It is a pity that Uchida was not more meticulous when she recorded her set of the Mozart piano sonatas for Philips. One of the notes on the Steinway that she used sticks out so much in some of the works that it makes listening quite difficult – bad enough that I haven’t returned to the set since, despite her fine playing. Couldn’t the technician at the sessions hear the problem?

    • Now THAT makes sense. Definitely easier in this case. I don’t know why people make such a fuss over her. I never found her particularly interesting anyway.

  • I think there’s maybe a misunderstanding here in the general opprobrium for Uchida. New Steinways are generally very good but not so many are really special (combination of touch, sound, the sense that you can forget about the piano and simply enjoy playing music). If you’re spending over £100,000 of someone else’s money, it’s a big responsibility to find one of the special ones. Maybe she was unlucky in the choice of 12 she had. Regardless, I think she should be applauded rather than denigrated. Hundreds of pianists are going to have to live with her choice, and a special piano makes it easier to create the magic that people come to concerts hoping to hear.

  • If we are talking about choosing the piano that will be used in this new hall for many years, and not for a single concert, then I understand that she takes her time and wishes to try us many grands as possible.
    Finding your special instrument, “the one”, it is not an easy question.

  • Well, if her Beethoven 4th at the Proms a couple of years ago is anything to judge by, none of the pianos, or even twenty or thirty more would make any difference to the dry tone, wrong notes and finger-weakness she displays these days. Change the pianist!

  • Why choose her for the first recital in the new Hall? There are lots of better pianists around. Lupu, Argerich ( it would be good to get a solo recital from her for such an occasion), Zimerman, Pollini, Pires, Pletnev, Kissin, Kovacevitch, Freire, Barenboim, for instance.

    • Pollini long exceeded his ‘sell by’ date. I’ve seen him in recital in the last few years and he’s really lost the plot!! Take a look at the Berliner Philharmoniker concert earlier this year when he played the Chopin 1st Concerto. Dreadful.

  • My take on this is that the hall (new and as-yet incomplete) has asked Ms. Uchida to select what will become the “house piano.” It seems perfectly reasonable to try 12 instruments to see which will fit the hall best, and if additional acoustic work is planned, waiting until it is complete to make a final decision. Of course Ms. Uchida will play whichever instrument is selected at her recital, but I did not get the impression that she is being “too picky” or showing her inner “artiste” in this process solely for selfish reasons.

  • The problem is not the pianos – it’s the pianist. I attended Ms. Uchida’s Carnegie Hall recital a few years ago, when she attempted to play the Schumann Fantasy – arguably among the most difficult works of the piano literature. The 2nd movement’s notorious leaps are the terror of all pianists who attempt them. But Mme. Uchida shamelessly re-wrote these difficult passages, simplifying them to suit her severe technical limitations. Add to this her wire-thin sound and cautious tempi, and you have the Emperor’s clothes. Yet, her publicity machine continues to roar on over-drive, attempting to project the image of something that she is not. At her best (i.e., when she chooses repertoire that suits her pianistic limitations) she is a decent musician with something to offer, but she has been vastly over-rated.

  • Though not at all a fan of Uchida, and as a former Steinway employee, (technician) I can say that it is not uncommon to not find an acceptable instrument in the lot. Choosing a piano for a hall is a merciless task, avoided by many because their name is forever associated with the instrument, which in ensuing years will be both loved and hated, depending on the artist’s taste and repertoire! One hall director told me in confidence, that he once told a pianist, known for being problematic, “in 30 years as director , the best pianists seem never to complain about the piano”…..apparently the discussion ended there!

    • Svjatoslav Richter said that all he cared about in a piano was a good pianissimo (in Bruno Monsaingeon’s Richter the Enigma).

      • Richter was famous for refusing to choose a piano for his recitals. He liked being challenged by what he found. Of course, Richter was very, very different from Uchida in every conceivable respect.

  • There is an inaccuracy in the original report. Uchida is not due to give a recital on January 11, 2017.´- that is the opening night and the inaugural concert will be given by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra – but she will be giving the first piano recital. As the original article in Hamburger Abendblatt makes clear, Uchida will be back in Hamburg this summer to try out a few more Steinways. Who knows, her notoriously tetchy temperament might have calmed down sufficiently by then to allow her to make a sensible choice of the three instruments needed for the new building.

    • I don’t think a man would reject 12 cars of the same model because in his head the driver’s seat in one is harder than in the other (or something similar).
      I could understand it if he had to choose between a Lexus, a BMW and a Mercedes, or between different models of one brand. But that would be like choosing between Steinway, Fazioli or Yamaha. That was not the case.

  • M. Uchida’s an arrogant person. Read interview at her London pad in International Piano. She’s not the most exiting pianist, even in Mozart. Get humble ,girl!

  • The great Russian poet at the time of Pushkin V.Krylov wrote a fable:”Quartet” about 4 animals decided to play string quartet. They constantly change chair positions but didn’t make music.
    Moral: ” And you, friends, no matter how you’ll sit, not able to be musicians’.

  • I don’t like the tone of some of these unpleasant comments about one of the very greatest pianists of our time. I seem to recall reading that Uchida used a Steinway from the 1960’s for some of her recordings, and many think that modern Steinways just don’t sound as good as older ones – presumably she thinks that as well. Perhaps tastes have changed in recent decades. I once went round the new Steinway Bs at the London show room with a famous pianist, intending to buy one, and we both agreed that none of them were very good. But it’s all a value judgement… Uchida may be an ultra-perfectionist but maybe that’s why she is so outstanding.

      • All the pianists I have worked with in the past 10 years seem to say the opposite… They all refused to play on Fazioli (among them names such as Von Eckardstein, Chamayou, Drake, Schwinghammer etc)

      • Yes, this does seem to be the prevailing wisdom on Steinways. I’ve heard this criticism quite a bit over the last years, rather disturbingly. The company is under new ownership now anyway, isn’t it?

    • Absolutely agree! I read those comments and thought I must be going mad. It’s astonishing sometimes – even on this site where presumably (?) most posters are adults – the amount of shameful vitriol that is displayed.

      Jealousy perhaps?

  • The Elbphilharmonie has, in the course of its construction, it’s own troubled history of delays and other mischief. Looks the same might happen in the selection of the House Grand Piano. Hopefully, Uchida will find the instrument. I wish her and the Elbphilharmonie good karma…;-)

  • It is very different the task to choose a piano to be associated with a concert hall for a life,and the task to choose one for just a recital. Some years ago Nelson Freire was choosing a piano for a concert hall in Brazil, at the same Hamburg Steinway. He had been trying many pianos before he get one. You can say anything about Freire, but not that he is arrogant. I think she is just trying to get the best possible fo the new hall.

  • I wonder why it has to always be an Steinway here and there. Is that the only piano maker available for classical music? The answer is no, definitely no!

    Bossendorfer and Fazioli make by all accounts much better pianos than Steinway. I heard that from a few guest pianists playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. As a matter of fact the PSO charged Emmanuel Ax and Yefrim Hoffman to find a light touch Steinway for Heinz Hall and they did (that was a few years ago). Probably the general idea was that Mozart was the only thing they were going to play. They never considered any other piano maker.

    Question: is Steinway doing something to get that favor? They have many piano performers under some form of contract I hear. Is Uchida one of them?

    For my money I would like to see other piano makers like Bossendorfer and Fazioli given a chance to be heard. Powerful bases are more likable when playing Tchaikovsky No. 1 piano concerto than a light (as the PSO Steinway) piano not very well suited for that kind of treatment (or shall I say punishment?).

    In any event, I don’t like piano concertos/recitals and that is my bias. But I do like the power on the bass of the Faziolis and/or the Bossendorfers. My all time favorite piano performer was Carol Rosenberger with a Bossendorfer Imperial Concert Grand.

    • I agree on Bösendorfer, but Fazioli’s instruments ar far inferior to both Steinway and Bösendorfer. Up to the point that none (!) of the pianists I have worked with wanted to play one, even though they had a choice. Do note that these were all concert performances, not solo recitals.

  • Google translation of first para goes as follows! Would like to have a better translation!

    The pianist is the focus. In the middle of the stage intersect and combine the visual axes, the attention, the multiple energy in the hall. Now that is already noticeable, on a March day nearly ten months before the scheduled opening of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, between plastic sheeting, scaffolding and a huge trunk, which hangs over the stage from the ceiling. The thin woman tilts her head back and let the views of the curving balconies with the gray-rough surface slide, discovered far above the organ, seems to estimate the ceiling height. “Very interesting,” Mitsuko Uchida finally says in unmistakable Viennese tone. “I have to ask times the Yasi how to do that.”

  • Too fussy by half. Take a leaf out of Sviatoslav Richter’s book and play whatever piano is in front of you. The finest piano plays no fewer wrong notes than any other. And…in my experience, the greatest pianists will make a pub piano sound as if it had been forged from pure gold (John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, Ronald Stevenson…etc, etc). Levity aside it is certainly the case that Steinways ain’t what they used to be. Fazioli? No thanks…

    • …I forgot to add (with no little pride) that I have owned Sir Clifford Curzon’s Steinway Model D (1965) for the past twenty five years and, despite its graceful ageing have never encountered a more beautiful instrument.

      • I’m envious! I’ve long been an admirer of Curzon’s pianism (via recordings anyway—I never heard him in person). Do you have the piano he used in concerts or the mahogany D he kept in his London studio? The latter instrument can be seen on the cover of his recording of Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 with Szell and the London Symphony.

        Apropos the brown wood-finished D, I would echo Andras Schiff’s question: why do concert pianos always have to be Steinway and why do they always have to be black? It would be a refreshing change to see brown concert pianos!

        • There’s something about staring at different colors when voicing that leads to different sound- non ebony pianos tend to come out of the factory more intimate in sound- an assumption of drawing room vs stage? It might even go back to what hammers were selected for the instrument. Depends on the factory, the people.

          I will agree with the comment that pianos aren’t what they used to be as far as individuality of sound between (or within) makes, but that is the case with modern orchestras too ( maybe an ISO aesthetic standard?) – there were some Argentine (?) philosophers of beauty in the middle of the 20th C who came to the conclusion that beauty was defined as the 50th percentile. I’m going to blame Charles Seeger for sticking that one in my brain….

    • I think this is the brand of piano that Pollini takes with him on his tours around Europe. Doesn’t improve his playing one bit!!

      • Pollini plays a Steinway modified by Angelo Fabbrini, an Italian technician who buys Hamburg Steinways then customizes them in various ways. You could be forgiven for thinking Fabbrini makes the pianos himself, however, since his name is plastered on the side of the piano in bigger, brighter gold letters than the words “Steinway & Sons”. (Do a Google search for images of Fabbrini Steinway and you’ll see what I mean.)

        • Brand new Steinways have been sent directly from the showroom floor to ‘artistic’ (and poetic!) rebuilders. You might, in this circumstance, think that just any Steinway would do, but no!

          Dr. Dee had nothing on these BS artistes, most of whom lack the stones (or ovaries) to start their own marque.

          It is excessively amusing to eavesdrop on these Safaris through Steinway showrooms, sometimes bolstered by apprentices eager to pile on for their Svengali.

  • MUCH more rare than a great pianist is a great TECHNICIAN. In fact, even moderately talented ones are few and far between! Without that, NO piano stands a chance. With one, magic can almost always happen.

  • I pity this woman, as great a pianist as she is. She’s so verbally touchy with everything she talks about—as if her perception supercedes all other opinion and is more important, germaine and valuable than all other opinion. Just watching her is a calorie burning exercise. Her facial grimacing during performances is unendurable. Buying a DVD of her is a poor investment. Sound recordings alone are the way to go. I enjoy her pianism, but no the character behind the pianism. As far as the piano matter here goes, if she’s going to be so damned touchy, she should arrange to have one her own personal instruments flown in for her. I know several concertizing artists who have done that—-at the expense of the impresario, in those cases.

    • Bolet had a custom trailer built for his grand that matched his car! Towed that thing all over the place. I think he said it had a heater in it, but that was before my time.

  • A certain jealousy here I freely admit – Uchida and I (also Rudolf Buchbinder) were amongst the 1967 cohort of students at the Vienna Akademie and both she and Rudlof cleaned up all the prizes leaving the rest of us to do as best we could…! She is indeed a fine pianist – no doubt about that, but a tough (and opinionated) cookie.

    • Thank heavens for her toughness and opinions, John. Far too much vanilla out there. And Mitsuko is always 100 percent and full-on.

      • Agree Norman – we are not expected to judge a musician’s personality, simply enjoy/admire what they have to offer. She does (despite my earlier criticism) have a point – pianos are not as good (or let’s say ‘characterful’) as they used to be. I visited a large piano dealer in Munich three or so years ago – pianos of all makes and sizes, both new and reconditioned up for sale and all equally characterless. The only ones which interested me were the Yamahas.

  • This might have been mentioned elsewhere…but why entrust the selection of an important piano to one pianist? Risky – what suits Uchida might not suit Hamelin, Levit….

    • Piano by committee is usually a political knife fight, and almost always results in the worst piano chosen, or one that is never used. Think about it: a board member, a conductor, a donor, a couple of famous artists, and throw in an academic for flavor, stirred with gusto by a factory rep lying in wait. What could go wrong?

    • The challenge here is to choose an instrument that is both suited to the hall (a difficult proposition since at the time the article was written the hall wasn’t even finished) and acceptable (at very least) to the widest variety of pianists. This last is the really tricky part. Anyone who knows pianos and pianists knows that the ideal instrument for, say, Horowitz or Michelangeli would have been loathed by Rubinstein or Arrau, etc etc. So the touchweight and voicing cannot be too extreme or personal. Presumably Uchida is relatively objective and middle-of-the-road when it comes to selection, since a number of institutions have relied on her to pick out pianos for them without much controversy that I’m aware of. There are certainly very well known (even celebrated) pianists whom I would not allow near my own piano, much less select one for an orchestra or hall.

  • Concert piano tech here (retired)- there are so many really exquisite pianos out there, but consider what David Bowie called the ‘politics of dancing’, and you wind up with a Steinway. Uchida doesn’t do that dance, thank goodness. My rule of thumb for Steinways was 1:10 good:bad. Once in a great while a great one will slip through, and those are pure poetry, and deserve fame. Patience, and not succumbing to the pressure to admit they are all fantastic. How about a nice Mason Hamlin AA? Even a rebuilt one. If you notice, Steinway likes to call themselves the standard of pianos. That’s a long way from poetry. Well that, and when I used to ask most artists what they wanted on most on stage pianos, the answer was ‘make it’s loud as possible’. Really.

  • This is of course ancient history by now, but what is curious is that presumably the 12 instruments were not randomly selected but were very carefully chosen and prepped to fulfill the specific needs (for a concerto piano, a recital piano, and a chamber music piano, respectively. What is even more curious is that presumably they were selected and prepped by Georges Ammann, Uchida’s longstanding personal technician. (The article mentions that Uchida confers with him during the selection.) If anyone would know exactly what she was looking for in a piano, it would be Ammann.

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