in: News & Features

April 28, 2010

Thoughts on Hearing Maurizio Pollini’s Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini in Concert

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Maurizio Pollini’s touring Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini concert grand exhibits  exceptionally ravishing tonal and technical characteristics. The fact that this is a piano well outside our modern norm begs a number of questions, among which is, “Why don’t we regularly hear instruments of this subtlety and beauty?”

But first, what goes into the production of a Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini concert grand? Italian piano technician and entrepreneur Angelo Fabbrini, from Pescara, Abruzzo, purchases new Steinways from that firm’s celebrated Hamburg atelier and subjects them to minute technical fine-tuning, replaces or substantially rebuilds numerous crucial action components, and reworks the interaction between strings, bridges, and soundboard. The sound of the rebuilt instruments reminds one of the finest surviving pre-1912 Blüthner concert grands (from Leipzig) and of 19th-century concert instruments by Mason & Hamlin, the 19th-century Boston firm whose pianos were, by a comfortable margin, the highest-priced in this country.

The Fabbrini design does not sustain tone for quite as long as these older pianos and the treble is gleamingly dark rather than the ethereal shimmering silver of the Blüthner Aliquot design. Unlike a standard New York Steinway, in which shadings under mezzo-forte can be difficult to control, sometimes even to produce, the Fabbrini Steinways offer the easy, wide dynamic range typical of pre-1920 pianos by the great German, American, and Austrian builders. The Fabbrini fortissimo is magnificent, but it is not as loud as the brash New York roar. Its top dynamic reaches are capable of considerable variation, and the tone production can be built up to near-orchestral volume without strain. In the course of the Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Symphony Hall on April 25, [reviewed here] Maurizio Pollini time and again called forth ppp and fff trills in the bottom two octaves, as effortlessly and clearly as at middle dynamic levels. Forte in the right hand against piano and mezzo-piano in the left became part of this recital’s wide dynamic vocabulary.

Once an expressive norm for concert instruments, this clear-as-a-bell opposition of dynamic levels is heard infrequently these days. From a purely piano technical perspective, an occasion like this recital lodges in lifelong memory. Mr. Pollini travels worldwide with his Steinway-Fabbrini. Other Fabbrini artists have been Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Sviatoslav Richter, and András Schiff.

The pieces played by Mr. Pollini in the Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall on April 25, as I mention in my review, here,exhibited the many superb characteristics of this piano. To wit:

“The unusually clear and rich piano tone, as well as the astonishing speed of effect of the brilliantly regulated dampers (genuinely rare), only augmented the powerful impression of the four terse Mazurkas, Op. 30. …

“Such explicit and colorful layerings of sound as Mr. Pollini brought to bear in the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 35 (1837-39) would not have been possible on most concert grands. The very fast tempi in some places, such as the concluding fourth movement, Finale: Presto, were entirely devoid of piano clatter, nor did the concluding bedlam of triplets devolve into misting blurs. …

“One third of the way into the first of Two Nocturnes, Op. 48 (1841), a C-minor study in contrast and overt effect, a Lisztian gout of troubled, rearing waters erupted even more vehemently than in the boldest pages of the Sonata. It was a deep pleasure to hear an instrument that could do this without a hint of strain. Thanks to Mr. Pollini’s minute management of dynamics, timbre, and the piano’s advanced damping abilities, the stillest moments got that way instantly. This is magic. The largest sonic excursion came in the tempestuous Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44 (1840-41). This is a famous work, yet it was still something of a revelation to experience the extreme clarity of this piano and its player’s ultra-precise elicitation of fine nuance, even at levels of sound that, on many a conventional concert D, sound coarse or brutal….”

Now I’ll attempt an answer to the question in the first paragraph of this article, knowing that this is actually a rather involved subject. I can’t do it proper justice here, but the conversation wants a beginning. Please note that I write this not in the intention of damning or embarrassing any of the few remaining players in today’s shrunken concert grand market. The factors leading to the present odd state of tonal production by pianos chosen for public pianistic statement are complex. These factors are historic as well. They took firm root at about the time that the connotations surrounding the notion “public performance” ceased to imply a gathering of up to a few hundred souls wearing the same select cloth and arriving by hansom, probably not on foot or in a packed char à banc. When concerts truly went public, concert venues began to grow in size. With the arrival of iron girders and suspended metal trusses in the late 1860s and early 1870s, it became practical to span ceilings like that of the Gewandhaus Leipzig, Boston Symphony Hall, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw without inordinate expense. Gas, then electric lighting technology kicked in to illuminate the new cultural colossi (as, eventually, did fire codes), and these vast new spaces became viable for frequent music productions. With a penalty.

Small hammers, modest string tensions, and bridges with minimal down- or up-bearing by the strings were no longer deemed able to meet the demands of hall managers, impresarios, and the newly itinerant titans who tried out, endorsed, and rejected concert pianos by the many aspiring makers of that busy industrial era. There was money to be made from titan-ism. It is rare today that a performer travels with his own instrument. At one time, though, this was almost standard practice for pianists of a certain eminence. Louis Moreau Gottschalk lived to be just 40, but when this caustic, flamboyant voyager died in 1869, he had already traveled tens of thousands of miles with concert instruments. Chickering, Bechstein, Steinway & Sons, Mason & Hamlin, Bösendorfer, Streicher, and Erard all sent their largest models out by rail, following the likes of Anton Rubinstein, the young Jan Paderewski, and Isaac Albéniz around from city to province to backwater to triumphant, telegraph-proclaimed acclaim in the major capitols. Rachmaninov, who died when Maurizio Pollini was one year old, was certainly not the last to travel with his own instrument, but the disappearance of his generation was essentially the end of this 80-year phenomenon.

What did these musical giants require of a piano? They were renowned poets of the keyboard, of course, and they demanded unlimited control over tonal color, exactingly voiced response to una corda and sostenuto pedaling, an impeccably regulated moderator (on Viennese instruments up to ca. 1870), and a spectacular, unforced dynamic range. But — there is always a but — they also needed to be heard clearly and sometimes shatteringly all the way back to the dim under-balcony reaches, all the way up to the dim, well-populated, unwashed upper balcony. The ability to generate sheer volume of sound became critical in selling concert grands, if not yet in populating coal-heated parlors with their modest siblings. Hammer size and soundboard configuration were modified to accommodate grand pianistic statements, often at the audible cost of the delicacy and the once-common broad palette of colors once touted by the same makers. It did not take many generations of instrument models for this æsthetic to become pervasive, to displace the former hallmarks of transparency and shading in favor of the “real piano sound” accepted by pianists and listeners today.

In the 1970s, certain makers attempted moves away from the bold, unsubtle, harsh tonal production that pervaded post-war pianomaking from living room and practice cubicle to the concert stages of the world. Under new management, the venerable firm of Bösendorfer embarked upon a well-conceived push to join top-of-the-heap Steinway on stage and in recordings. Certain famous names became official Bösendorfer artists or attempted to add pianos by this maker to their discographies and concert appearances. But in many instances they found themselves struck from the Steinway artists list, with predictable logistical and financial consequences.

In the interim decades, matters have loosened somewhat. We regularly encounter recordings on new pianos by Fazioli (of Friuli Giulia, Italy), Steinway-Fabbrini (Pescara, Abruzzo, Italy), Bösendorfer (Vienna), Yamaha (Nagoya, Japan), and Bechstein (formerly Berlin; now Saxony, Germany, and Hradec Králové, Czech Republic), as well as a welcome flood of albums made on restored or beautifully maintained historic instruments selected for their suitability to given repertoires. Among these, I must mention the many faces of pre-1950 New York and Hamburg Steinways, whose dramatic reappearance on disc and sometimes on stage has slowly, powerfully reintroduced modern audiences to the once customary breadth of expressivity for which the company, then still privately held, was justly renowned.

Of late, since about 1995, some very fine and nuanced concert grands have emerged from the Astoria and Hamburg workshops, pianos once more capable of delicacy, reliable repetition at low dynamics and in the sepulchral bass region, and a newly broadened spectrum of forte power devoid of clangor. The modern reintroduction of a range of piano sound, however, has been slow. This evolution — please, let’s steer clear of that horrid word, “retro” — has been hindered by the fact that, for the best part of a century, conservatories have not had the means to expose their student bodies to sufficiently varied piano sound and mechanics to instill an awareness, let alone even moderate tolerance, of the breathtaking diversity of piano sound for which the great composers crafted their solo, chamber, and concerted scores.

One often hears pianists say “It doesn’t sound like a real piano” when confronted with an 1870s Blüthner, a 2009 Steinway-Fabbrini, or that Rolls-Royce of the early 20th century, big Mason & Hamlin concert grands and their heavyweight but light-on-their-three-feet domestic versions. What they mean, alas, is that they haven’t had the luxury of experiencing the extended tonal, expressive, and dynamic language of a range of pianos. They judge instruments — boy, do they judge them — based upon a tragically narrow selection of piano characteristics institutionalized by three quarters of a century of monochrome piano manufacturing, predicated on sound volume, rigorously homogenized timbre throughout the octaves, and a devaluation of dynamics below mezzo-forte, fully half of the instrument’s former dynamic range.

However greatly pianos by historic makers differed from each other, they had one characteristic in common. Each octave, sometimes even smaller ranges of notes, had an individual tone color. This imparted clarity to complex music, and it magnificently enriched the harmonic soundscape in dense chordal passages. (So did the interesting temperaments once used by tuners, but that’s another football to kick around.) The advent of powerful sound pressures inevitably did away with individual timbres up and down the keyboard. High string tensions, stiffly crowned soundboards, and large, sturdy hammers made this facet of voicing technically impossible, or at least difficult.

A bleak future? Not necessarily. It will take a while, but I sense that both the piano-playing world and a music-hungry public are welcoming their discovery of a new breadth of expressive possibilities. This is, if you will, a return to some very fine musical values that endured until the end of the steam era. I have been fortunate to live long enough to have acquired that perspective naturally. This “movement” is hardly a revolution. Rather, it is a resurgence of common sense and a hunger for heightened expressivity. Our recent experimentation with the piano as a truly flexible, poetic instrument, helped enormously by high-profile events like Maurizio Pollini’s Symphony Hall appearance with his Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini, has legs. For a quarter century, the 10 concerts presented each year, in fall and spring, by Music from the Frederick Collection have been drawing Bostonians and many others to hear the great composers’ scores on the pianos for which they originally wrote them, sometimes with life-changing results for the listeners.

The evolution of this marvellous instrument has been lengthy. It began in Florence at the close of the 17th century, and the inexorable press of musical and technical innovation persisted in the piano world until, arguably, the First World War. I hope fervently that we can continue to include early pianos and the wide spectrum of early-modern piano æsthetics in our everyday musical vocabulary. It’s liberating to abandon terms like fortepiano and pianoforte, to call upon 1910s and 1930s grands for a part of our musical nourishment. This does not devalue the modern grand in the slightest. It allows us a contextually informed perspective on our present-day instruments, which we have the option of using when they are the best vehicles for the repertoire at hand. We now have the possibility of embracing the lengthy historic fabric of the piano as a living part of the concert scene and on recordings. We ought to be unabashedly vocal in demanding that the variety we once had, we can have again.

See related review here.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.
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2 Comments

  1. I was the concert tuner at Spoleto, Italy 1977, 1978, 1980, & 1993.
    All the pianos came from Fabbrini. They were in wonderful shape whether for rehersal or concert.

    Tony McKenna

    Comment by Tony McKenna — May 16, 2010 at 5:11 pm

  2. This is a fascinating article by Christopher Greenleaf  which I  found it when  doing a websearch for Steinway-Fabbrini. I recently, I received a DVD Christmas present of Daniel Barenboim’s  performance of the two Chopin concertos during the 2010 Ruhr Piano Festival held at the Philharmonie Essen (what a superb  auditorium!).  I was astonished at the tonal beauty of the Steinway-Fabbrini and its wide range of subtle dynamics. I wrote to a friend that the performance of Mr Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle conducted by Andris Nelsons was marvellous and  that another concert star was the beautifullly tuned Steinway-Fabbrini. Top marks also to the recording team.

    Brian Merrett
    Queensland, Australia  

    Comment by Brian Merrett — December 13, 2011 at 4:07 pm

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