Invasion of the Super Pianos
Before the Second World War many makes of piano were heard in concert halls, and their various appearances and sound qualities could instantly be recognised by audiences. But by the 1960s a shortage of quality materials, and the substitution of machines for craftsmanship, had reduced these names to just one. Steinway's design concept has barely changed for over a century, and their pianos still set the standard for world-class concert instruments today. Understandably, they take great pride in not having changed their concept in all those years, confidently asserting that their instruments 'cannot be improved'. But does that claim still hold true? I'm not so sure.
The last significant period of technical development came in the second half of the nineteenth century, driven by both the physical demands placed on the piano by the likes of Franz Liszt and the aesthetic demands of the evolving romantic repertoire. Performers had the ears of the leading manufacturers of the day, and manufacturers competed fiercely to meet their demands. Music which enthusiastically exploited the extended acoustic repertoire of these new instruments flowed thick and fast, an opportunity sadly denied to composers today (who, in the absence of technical innovation, often resort to harmonic discords, disjointed rhythms and cheap gimmicks).
Steinway pianos still produce a marvellous sound, but it's a shame that the concert-going public has largely been denied the interest of hearing different timbres for so long. (The only significant exception in recent years is perhaps the instruments of Paolo Fazioli. Founded in 1981, the company produces broadly traditional pianos with a refreshingly fine upper register sound that is perfect for concerto performances.) But now a new generation of so-called 'super pianos', designed with the help of computers and state-of-the-art technology, is offering improved actions and superb sounds. For those of you, of course, with the necessary funds and a large enough room!
The Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart was perhaps the first person to see that piano design had stagnated, and that the quality of modern instruments was declining. After a long period of study he produced his ultimate piano, complete with soundboards made from timber which is a thousand years old and veneer wood which is two thousand years old! He optimised every detail and introduced new acoustic concepts, resulting in a sound that is clear, powerful and different. It is no exaggeration to say that the craftsmanship of a Stuart piano is beyond anything hitherto achieved in the history of the instrument, and it's no wonder he only produces twelve a year.
In 2006 Steingraeber & Söhne introduced the Steingraeber-Phoenix range of pianos, which were researched and developed here in the UK and use wave form and harmonic analysis to optimise their sound. Unlike Stewart, however, Steingraeber preserved the sound quality of their traditional instruments (an important consideration for a firm that has always built hand-crafted pianos, including, incidentally, Liszt's). A Steingraeber-Phoenix soundboard is not a strength member, so its acoustic role is optimised, and the conversion of finger to sound energy is roughly double that of a traditional piano so pianists can achieve greater control by exerting less force.
The Japanese manufacturer Kawai has published work on an action made almost entirely from carbon fibre, and Stewart and Steingraeber-Phoenix instruments include the option of carbon fibre sound boards. Carbon fibre is one of the most exciting new technologies in piano manufacturing, as it has a low density and does not absorb acoustic energy within its mass. It is also strong and resilient and unaffected by humidity, all qualities which help to optimise an instrument's power, sustain and durability. Interestingly, this has sometimes lead players to think that a completely conventional action has been improved as less effort is required to produce the sound they desire.
The largest concert grand pianos can weigh weight almost a ton, requiring a team of strong men to move them, and professional pianists are rarely able (or allowed) to use their own instruments in concert halls. So far, no manufacturer has attempted to build a piano with a carbon fibre frame, but carbon fibre offers the prospect of considerable weight savings. Broadwood produced a piano without bars shortly after the First World War, which eliminated uneven sound quality between the separate registers. All traditional pianos suffer with this problem, because of the space needed for bars, but carbon fibre is strong enough and stiff enough to build a viable modern 'barless' piano.
It can also help to improve tuning stability. A piano will primarily go out of tune because of changes in the humidity of its environment, but carbon fibre is almost impervious to moisture and therefore dimensionally stable in all humidity conditions. Stewart and Steingraeber are at the forefront of these exciting innovations, but other manufacturers are exploring similar new concepts. A nine foot six inch Bösendorfer experimental super piano exists for example, Paulello has produced a number of prototypes and Petrof are known to be very interested in a new bridge agraffe design (bridge agraffes being an important part of this latest generation of instruments).
From Piano to Super Piano
Super pianos come in many different sizes, but the larger the instrument the better it will sound (and, super piano or not, it is always best to buy the largest affordable instrument for which you have room). That said, recent advances in technology now mean that smaller instruments can have just the same, if not better, sound quality than their older and larger counterparts. A five foot six inch Steingraeber-Phoenix, for example, is going to have much the same acoustic performance as a traditional seven foot two inch piano, and a seven foot two inch Stewart instrument offers a performance which will meet, and quite probably exceed, that of any nine foot concert grand.
All manufacturers will produce instruments with custom finishes. Steingraeber & Söhne offer many different styles of piano, and a choice of over one hundred exotic wood veneers. Bösendorfer (who, by the way, currently hold the record for the world's most expensive piano) build to a wide range of finishes and their instruments can be retrofitted with new technology design concepts. Steinway also offers special-build services, and super pianos are not just the finest of musical instruments but works of art in their own right. They are every bit as impressive as a fast car in my opinion, but with the distinct advantages of lasting longer and depreciating far more slowly!
As with violins, the wood in a piano improves as it ages. Generally, though, the instrument itself does not, for example because joint integrity deteriorates over time. Such problems can be put right a by skilled renovator, leaving old pianos sounding and looking like (or better than) new. But very few renovated instruments will have been restored with that level of skill, and very few would justify the work. Most pianos built after 1970 were manufactured using inferior steam-cured timber, and don't warrant expenditure in renovation. It is safer to buy an old instrument that hasn't been restored, and entrust its renovation to someone with the right facilities and skills.
If you do choose to buy a restored piano, you will at best get a traditional instrument that lacks the latest improvements which would make it a super piano. Steinway made some very fine instruments between 1928 and 1940, for example, but an 1876 Steinway Centennial lacks power. Bechstein built superb pianos between 1900 and 1920, and Bösendorfer built consistently fine pianos for most of the twentieth century. Other quality makes include Ibach, some Blüthners, Richard Lipp, Rönisch and any pre-1930 Broadwoods (built before the company introduced too many profit enhancing features, after which their reputation vanished and liquidation followed).
Properly maintained, a super piano should last for one hundred years or more, although wearing parts will of course need routine replacement. No instrument will last or perform well unless it is regularly serviced, whether it's a brand new, state-of-the-art instrument or your grandmother's old upright. Indeed, the very considerable expenditure required to buy a super piano makes its maintenance even more important. Traditional pianos typically require tuning between two and four times a year (depending on their make and environment), but a super piano can last a year or more thanks to the improved design of its frame and a lower stress loading on the sound board.
The factory cost of all the top models is very similar, but recommended retail prices vary enormously. Buyers may be asked to pay anything between £65,000 and £100,000 for a brand new concert grand, but price is no guide to musical quality and you need to be aware of the selling practices of different manufacturers. Some, for example, will charge private buyers more than institutional buyers, and others list high recommended retail prices but negotiate when pressed. And then, of course, there are the added extras. Special styling and finishes will incur significant additional costs without contributing to, or detracting from, an instrument's acoustic performance.
The familiarity of the name is not a guide to quality, either. Some famous makes survive in name only, with no factory of their own, and are manufactured in the Far East using cheap labour and poor materials. But the future looks much brighter, with the promise of smaller, lighter, high-performance instruments. Had carbon fibre been available to Heinrich Steinway, it would have been commonplace in today's instruments. In 1936 a small grand piano with an aluminium frame was placed in the Hindenburg Airship and the first live, airborne recital was broadcast. Let's hope an acoustic piano will soon be a standard feature in the first class lounges of long-haul planes!