Just finished watching the documentary, Pianomania, which does for Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfe, what Jiro Dreams of Sushi does for Jiro Ono, namely meticulous documentation of a nearly insane level of perfectionism in highly specialized work. I know more and care more about the world of pianos than I do about sushi, so found it more compelling, and also weirder.
At one point, the amiably, but ultra-demanding pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, asks Knüpfe to prepare a piano for a Bach recording in a way that can bring to life four different musical personalities, organ-like, chamber-like, harpsichord-like and clavichord-like. Stefan goes to see examples of a clavichord in action, and the expert he consults has these intriguing comments. (Helpful context: the clavichord is a small pre-19th century keyboard instrument often thought of as a precursor to the piano. It was personal–you could just carry it around–soft in volume, so quiet that only the player and perhaps one other person could hear it, and thus much more direct. Unlike a modern piano, there wasn’t much between your finger and the mechanism that made the string sound. It is pre-industrial, in its ambitions, and its effect.)
Alfons Huber: “The modern concert piano is a fascinating music machine. There is no alternative for a large hall with 4000 people. But volume is always combined with a loss of color. On this point we totally agree. And a machine that is so agressive that I can’t even draw the string that makes it sing without bloodying myself, a thing that requires three people to be transported, it has developed a certain inhuman dimension for me.”
It is true that the concert grand (and its milieu) is a product of the industrial age. The art lies in making it sound like something other than a machine. The pianist Alfred Brendel (featured in the film) used to teach that the first thing in playing the piano well is not to make it sound (merely) like a piano, which has, after all, a basic sound that is not all that intrinsically interesting.
One pianist for whom the piano sings with an extraordinary, and to me, a nearly human beauty is Krystian Zimerman, the great and elusive Polish pianist. Perhaps not incidentally, he is an obsessive about the mechanics of the piano and recording. Check out this YouTube find of his playing an arrangement of the Bach Chaconne for 15 minutes of something cosmic for lack of a better word.