Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Couple Discoveries

Favorite French Piano Works
David Rubinstein
Musicus (2010)


My love of the organ is closely seconded by affection for the piano. I suppose it's because I always had a piano in the house and developed a taste for its sounds early on. I've had an old Chickering 9' concert grand for about 25 years now, carting it laboriously from place to place, always having to choose houses based on what will accommodate it.

As with the organ, I'm very interested in the piano as a machine and in its history and construction. In addition to listening to a lot of piano music, I love visiting new piano showrooms and also the mom-and-pop piano rebuilding shops I've found in each place I've lived. From all of this I have a sense of the piano as a product historically of large industrial concerns--Steinway, Yamaha, Bösendorfer. These are big, expensive products crafted and assembled by armies of workers of many job descriptions and skills. I've always been aware of smaller specialty piano makers, but even firms like Fazioli and Bechstein are, I imagined, pretty large concerns, shipping 3/4 ton, highly finished instruments all over the world.

Clicking through YouTube videos a couple days ago (yet again--how much of my musical life is now being driven by YouTube?), I ran across a video of Messiaen played on the world's largest piano in which Aaron McClasky plays the short Prelude "The Dove" on an instrument by the California piano maker David Rubenstein. I'd never heard of him (Rubenstein or McClasky), but I was immediately intrigued, not simply by the piano's massive size--12'2" and 2,500 lbs!--but by the idea that an individual would undertake to design and build an instrument of this size and caliber in (presumably) a small workshop. This was like a thunderbolt to me; it counters every intuition I have about where pianos come from.

While searching for Mr. Rubenstein's website, I quickly came to realize that there is a cottage industry of small, boutique piano makers. I'll come back to that. But after poking around his website--and buying this recording of his instrument--I decided to send him off a little note of introduction expressing an interest in seeing his operation at some point (his shop is located in El Segundo, just South of LAX; an easy drive from our hub in Ontario, CA). He very graciously wrote me back and extended his hospitality whenever I next make it to town, so this has become high on my to-do list.

His signature piano, the R-371, is not the only instrument he makes. There is also the more nearly normal R-244, which sports an eight foot length and a standard 88 keys. The R-371 has 97 keys, extending the piano's normal compass down to CCC. Both pianos are otherwise made of the same materials and with the same methods. I have no idea how many, if any, of either model Mr. Rubenstein has made or sold.

The piano builder David Rubenstein has paired up with the improbably-named pianist David Rubinstein for a CD of the R-371, an album of French compositions which show off the instrument's dynamic and tonal palette: The Meditation from Thaïs of Massenet, Satie's Three Gymnopedie, Debussy's Children's Corner, three Mouvements perpetuel of Francis Poulenc and the Sonatine and Les Vallée des cloches of Ravel. Just my kind of stuff.

The first thing I notice is that the sonic differences between pianos from different manufacturers (to say nothing of between instruments from a single builder) are very subtle indeed. "Proper" piano tone is well-established and codified. There's a right and wrong way for a piano to sound. Given the massive existing repertoire for the piano--in all genres--I don't know why I was expecting a singular instrument like the R-371 to sound in any way different from every concert grand piano I had heard before, but this expectation went unrealized. Perhaps more time and careful listening is required; if I concentrate I can hear an impressive sustain from the R-371, and the lowest octave is spectacular as one might expect from strings a good three feet longer than the industry standard. But it sounds like a concert grand piano in all the best senses.

As for this recording, pianist David Rubinstein is excellent. He is very much at home in this repertoire, and he demonstrates the bottom 2/3 of the instrument's dynamic range ably--though a full assessment of the R-371's qualities will need some Beethoven or Prokofiev or Reger to judge. The sound on the disc is excellent apart from a couple climactic moments--just a couple individual notes, really, which sound a touch saturated to me (and it may just be a bad iTunes transfer). Regardless, it's nothing to detract from a very enjoyable listening experience and a wonderful introduction to the musical oddity that is the R-371.

This exploration of what is to me new territory yielded a few other delicious finds, including a brilliant instrument from the Australian firm Stuart and Sons, and also a magnificent pedal piano from the Italian builder Luigi Borgato. We'll cover this latter instrument in a separate post.


shrimplate said...


I would love to hear Gaspard de la Nuit or La Cathedrale Engloutie played on this.

wunelle said...

Two of my favorites! Gaspard is in my top two or three pieces by anyone in any genre. Pure, unadulterated genius.