Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thunder from Down Under

Beethoven: Op. 120 Diabelli Variations, etc.
Gerard Willems at the Stuart & Sons piano
ABC Classics 476 4113


I find I'm not quite done with piano technical matters.

After my recent brief survey of recordings of unusual pianos, I spent some time surfing the web exploring boutique piano manufacturers. They're not so rare as I expected. On reflection, there is little excuse for my being surprised to find artisans hand-building grand pianos; in my defense (as I've said elsewhere) I'm simply used to pianos as the output of mass-production--big, heavy products of big industrial concerns, the products of steam-driven factories that once dotted our landscape. Teams of engineers and designers worked in concert (sorry) to finalize a specification, which was then translated into industrial processes which in turn produced countless examples of each model, all conforming to the original specification to within specified tolerances. The industrial revolution in a nutshell.

But of course a piano exists as an implement for an artistic endeavor, and at the pointy end of the spectrum musical instruments have always been made with exquisite care and attention to detail. That they once were ONLY made this way doesn't mean that NONE are now made this way. A Steinway D is still made in the old factory, but the instrument is surely gone over individually in excruciating detail to bring each variance to perfect compliance.

But the smaller the builder the less mass-produced the process must seem. David Rubenstein's R-371, a 12-foot concert grand, is hand made in his workshop in California. The materials may be similar to those used in a production-line Steinway D, but everything here must be crafted and fitted by hand. And so it must be for all these boutique builders. Pictures on his website show Luigi Borgato's Italian factory to be a pre-industrial space, more an artisan's workshop than, say, a place where BMWs are built.

Some really exquisite things come from these places. Another discovery I made is the piano builder and researcher Wayne Stuart, proprietor of Stuart & Sons Pianos out of Newcastle, Australia. Formed in 2001, Stuart & Sons have concentrated on careful research and design evolution of the modern grand piano. The firm have produced something North of 50 large instruments. I searched in vain for a showroom on my recent visit to Sydney, but alas the instruments are only officially on display in the firm's Newcastle factory. But the website mentions that Sydney's Powerhouse Museum owns one of the instruments, so I headed over there to have a look at it. (It was part of a museum display of musical instruments, so unfortunately I was neither able to photograph nor to play the magnificent instrument.)

Among other things, Wayne Stuart has concentrated on increasing the instrument's clarity and sustain, and the results are subtle but meaningful. The instrument features an increased range--four notes on the bottom and almost an octave on top--which is not subtle, of course, though there is little existing music (classical anyway) that will allow for use of these notes; but the harmonic development of the instrument's tone is enhanced by the increased scale. And Stuart's work on improved sustain and clarity is quite noticeable. In concentrating minutely on controlling how the piano's individual strings vibrate, Stuart has been able to increase the sonic purity of the notes, with the result that the upper registers speak with an unexpected brilliance and distinctness, not getting lost in a plink of harmonic artifacts; and the lower registers maintain their fundamental focus considerably further down the scale, the individual tones not disappearing in a mass of muddy sound. The result is subtle but noticeable. (The pianist Bill Risby demonstrates these features on the website.)

Because the concern is so small, there are almost no recordings of the instruments available (it seems the company does not sponsor artists as many other manufacturers do, so recordings are only going to be made by otherwise unaffiliated artists who chose the instrument. One of these is the Dutch-born Australian classical pianist Gerard Willems, who has now recorded an entire cycle of Beethoven on the Stuart & Sons piano. I was able to find his most recent release on iTunes, a 2010 recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. It's an excellent recording, giving one a front-row seat for demonstration of this most fascinating instrument in a most demanding repertoire. I'm not previously familiar with the Diabelli Variations (not being especially taken with Beethoven), but the piano's full dymanic and tonal resources are put to vigorous use here. Willems seems a perfect advocate of this repertoire, highly accomplished technically and full of fire; he plays the piece almost like an improvisation.

The website features several other musicians demonstrating the Stuart & Sons instrument, including some Bach, and one hopes for additional recordings--since I'm unlikely to ever spend much time with the real instrument. Maybe if I win the lottery (most unlikely if I refuse to buy a ticket...)


shrimplate said...

This is so interesting!

I am rather familiar with the world of boutique guitars: Froggy Bottom, Bourgeois, Sardin, Carrillo, Huss & Dalton, etc. But I have never given much thought to peianos beyond the occasional exotic recording of a Bosendorfer.

Now I'm inspired to humt down recording such as the one you have discussed.


wunelle said...

It's pretty rarefied stuff, I know (much like the love of minutiae with guitars), but I love that one can pick out these little differences in something so established.

And I'm especially glad that you pop over regularly to read these things which are surely of interest to no one else!