I have been reading with interest on Daniel Barenboim’s newly designed piano, which was recently unveiled at the Royal Festival Hall. Daniel Barenboim is a proud owner of a Steinway model D concert grand, and indeed in demonstrating his new piano he had brought along this piano for comparison. So what’s the difference?
The main difference is in the arrangement of the strings across the soundboard. If you peer under the lid of most grand pianos, you’ll find the strings in two tiers, with the lowest strings crossing over on top of the higher strings. In Barenboim’s piano, the strings are all arranged in parallel, straight up the soundboard, with no crossover.
The idea as it happens, is not a new one. Barenboim was inspired by a restored grand piano that belonged to the great virtuoso composer Franz Liszt. Housed somewhere in Siena, Italy, this piano has the same parallel string arrangement, which was a lot more common back then. For Barenboim, the difference was clear and set the wheels in motion for a modern equivalent:
“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.”
It is one thing to dream of such a piano, another thing to build one. Building a Steinway concert grand in itself is an extremely time consuming and expensive process. Barenboim approached Steinway & Sons first with the idea, but they were unable to take it further at the time. However they gave their support to him developing the piano with Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene. 18 months and 4,000 work hours later the piano was ready. You can see in the video below Barenboim demonstrating the new instrument:
For Barenboim, the piano is his new love and he now wants to play everything on it. He followed the new instrument’s unveiling with a series of concerts playing Schubert’s 12 piano sonatas, all on the new instrument. And it appears Barenboim is not alone in his thinking. Pianist Gwendolyn Mok, who plays an 1875 straight-strung Erard piano, has said that such instruments possess superior clarity:
“If you look inside your own piano, you will notice that the strings are all crossing each other…. With the straight strung piano you get distinct registral differences – almost like listening to a choir where you have the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices. It is very clear and there is no blending or homogenizing of the sound. It therefore gives you huge opportunities in experimenting with colour.”
There are only two of the new piano in existence, one for Barenboim and one for its creator, Maene. At an approximate cost of double of what a Steinway D would cost to purchase, the future is uncertain for this instrument at a mass market level. But it will clearly renew debate amongst top artists, and it is very easy to see a few more of these appearing in top recording studios for artists in search of something different.