Michael's Blog

12 February 2019

In 1800 when Thomas Jefferson ordered an upright piano from John Isaac Hawkins he was intending to encourage the young inventor. But he was taking a risk. He paid Hawkins $264 for it, a lot of money, and the piano was duly delivered to Monticello. But it was a disaster. It proved impossible to keep it in tune, but this was not due to the weather in Virginia, or anything about its location within the house. A Kirckman harpsichord nearby remained perfectly playable.

George Washington also was probably thinking of encouraging American artisans when he bought a square piano from Dodds & Claus. This likewise proved a mistake. His grand-daughter, Eleanor, was much happier with the more reliable instrument he ordered for her from London. Washington obviously had to be seen to support American tradesmen, but in the end common sense prevailed. Buy from experienced craftsmen, who are constructing these instruments in quantity day after day!

When I saw a square piano by Dodds & Claus it was obvious that it was simply a pirated design, being an attempt to copy Broadwood's patent, but it was poorly done. No surprise really – Broadwood's design only makes sense in the context of high production volumes. Similarly, an eighteenth century square piano by Bachmann from Pennsylvania is obviously an attempted copy of Longman & Broderip's pianos made by John Geib in London. But mistakes were made. Better to buy from the men who are making them day after day!

This week, however, I got an unpleasant surprise. Tuning a square piano by Broadwood I was puzzled that bottom C would not go into tune. In fact, as I applied the tuning hammer nothing seemed to be happening. The pitch should have been rising, but it was not. 'Check, Michael' I said to myself. 'Are you on the right pin?' I checked. Everything seemed in order. It was fully five minutes, maybe ten, before I realized that Broadwoods (seemingly reliable and dependable) had sold a piano with the wrong markings on the wrestplank! For 200 years this piano somehow survived with every note in the bottom octave wrongly marked! There's nothing wrong with the piano, but how many tuners have been led astray by this? How many overspun strings have been broken on this account?

6 February 2019

On Saturday I had the opportunity to hear a concert grand piano by Fazioli played by three different pianists in various chamber music works by Dvorak. The venue was a large Victorian church, with a high roof, but given a modern make-over with carpet tiles and comfortable chairs – so with a much modified accoustic. Not echoing, not harsh or unsympathetic for music. Yet I found that, no matter which player, or which ensemble, the persistent impression was of an instrument with an over-powerful voice redeemed by no beautiful tone in any register. Power? Certainly. You could play Rachmaninov on this in Carnegie Hall and everyone would hear every note. But was it enjoyable in this context? Sad to say, I found it no more pleasant than the equivalent Steinway. Maybe in the tenor and bass (especially in the notes below 8 foot C) one could hear unusual clarity at times, but the stentorian treble had no pretty sounds whatever. So, three pianists, separately, playing similar pieces, but what came over most assertively was the intrusive nature of the piano itself.

When we hear a good violin (which we did on Saturday) we appreciate its particular voice, its individual character, bright or mellow, sweet or strong, on the top string or the D string. But with our gleaming black concert grand pianos it seems that the manufacturers aim only at uniformity: a standard product – one size fits all, so to speak. The variation from one to another is minimal, the sound being as fascinating as the black lacquer on the outside.

By contrast last week, using headphones with my computer, I found a recent recording of Schubert's grand duo Fantasie in F minor (D940), on a Viennese square piano. My eardrums were never assaulted in the louder passages (as they are so often when two confident pianists get to work on a Steinway) and even though there were imperfections in the tuning, there was no chance of my giving up on this performance. I listened with interest to every note, right to the end.

29 January 2019

As preparations for the symposium at Mount Vernon begin to take shape, I am awestruck by photos of the reproduction harpsichord recently completed by John Watson. Such a magnificent accomplishment! So many seemingly insurmountable challenges met and overcome!

The original instrument - as played by George Washington's grand-daughter - was purchased from Longman & Broderip in London in 1793. At that point in the history of music we tend to think that the harpsichord's useful life was over - it would soon be redundant, overtaken by the inexorable rise of the pianoforte. Yet on this Virginia plantation this fabulously complex harpsichord, with machine stop and Venetian swell, continued as the lady's principal instrument well into the nineteenth century. In 1817 this was the instrument on which 'Nellie' entertained her house guests, and judging by their comments preserved in letters, they greatly admired her performances. (She had long before abandoned her square piano!)

What should we make of this? I see from my notes on Mary Marsh, that she was soon to acquire her third square piano. Finding her Broadwood piano of 1788 rather disappointing, she took her brother's advice in 1794 and chose a much better one from Longman & Broderip. Of course, this does not mean that she would not have been happy to play on the Mount Vernon harpsichord - if we can imagine her magically transported across the ocean. Making sense of all this, and the conflicting information we glean from documentary sources is quite a challenge - but one I have engaged to undertake.


18 January 2019

Innovation in piano design is not dead or even moribund. For those like me who yearn for some diversity, and deplore the stranglehold that Steinway & Sons have enjoyed for too long on the concert platform, the discovery I made this week of the innovative grand piano designs of Stephen Paulello is refreshing news.

Long ago we entertained hope for the Bösendorfer Imperial grand, an instrument that seemed to have some subtle differences, though it came in the familiar-looking package of a black-laquer sprayed monster that could be nowhere at home but in a large concert hall. Sadly, I found that despite the generous comments of some well-known players (possibly under contract) its touch and tone was not specially pleasing and hardly different from the product we already knew. And Bösendorfer's much-vaunted extra notes in the bass were disappointingly dry and dull.

Fazioli promised much, and their concert grands have their adherents, but when I made a long journey to hear one in concert it was not a rewarding experience. It sounded good. The player was better than most. But it certainly did not come over as a break-through product. I think the truth may be that the makers did not have sufficient nerve to depart very far from familiar the Steinway territory, where most conservatoire-trained players feel at home.

You cannot say that of Stephen Paulello. You see no iron framing. No black lacquer. A unique piano concept with an instantly different shape, longer and wider than expected, with a subtly different curvature. It was specially interesting to see that the bass strings have been repositioned. The crossed-over bass, placing the lowest notes on a separate bridge, was originally a space-saving configuration adopted by Henri Pape in his small upright pianos. Why Steinway pretended that his basses gained any tonal benefit from such an arrangement is puzzling. Most of us, if we are honest, find the cross-over register muddy, slow-speaking, and confused. Paulello has boldly dispensed with this modern dogma. By placing his string band in something resembling the old straight-strung grands he has regained some clarity and quicker speech. But I wonder if he hasn't over-cooked the goose! Like Hawkins' astonishing patent upright pianos of 1800, Stephen Paulello has gone way beyond what was needed to open up a special place in the history of piano technology. You're accustomed to 88 notes? Paulello has 102! I have to say that his deep bass doesn't sound any better Bösendorfer's. Apart from the very top, the treble seem bright and clear. It's good to hear that those disheartening dead tones that come at the climax of many pieces by Chopin may have been eliminated. Well, there is more to see and hear, but even if I listen carefully with headphones, there is no accounting for what the record producer and sound engineer may have cooked up. So I look forward to hearing one of these pianos live one day, with a musician who can exploit new possibilities. It looks and sounds promising.

8 January 2019

Last Saturday's Coffee concert was a happy success. About 150 people turned out to hear music for viola da Gamba and harpsichord, and they were very appreciative and attentive throughout. Their generous donations will help finance future events. It was good too that the Cole family was brought together again before university commitments take Lois and Henry away. Warwick and Rachel were mingling and chatting, Grannie Annie welcomed everyone at the door, and her husband was busy in the kitchen making pots of tea and washing up. When a page turner was needed 'young' Sophie was happy, as ever, to oblige. She's nearly sixteen now!

But amidst all this happiness we heard some terrible news. Our friend Alan Crumpler had a disastrous fire at his home in Lemster [shown on maps as Leominster]. His is a very old house in the centre of the town, and here when everyone slept on Christmas night an electric fire had been left on. The first they knew of it was in the early hours when the bedrooms were filled with acrid smoke. Everyone escaped, but dressed only in their pyjamas. Fire appliances arrived as promptly as possible, and the flames were confined to the music room - but only by pumping in a cascade of water. In the end, when the smoke subsided, all that was left of Alan's pipe organ was a pile of charred timber and a pool of molten lead. His harpsichord, which he used for concerts in the Lion Ballroom has been totally destroyed, as has a rare eighteenth-century bassoon, and about 30 other instruments. On this website on the Zumpe page you can see the nameboard of a modest little piano with three pedals by Schoene & Co., dated 1785. It has been severely burned and is unlikely ever to play again. Then, of course, there is Alan's lifetime collection of music – all gone. What the flames did not consume a torrent of water ruined. A disastrous Christmas. Sadly, of such events is history made.

3 January 2019

Highlights of 2018 as recorded in this Blog must include the dispersal sale of the Colt Collection, and the eagerness shown by bidders hoping to acquire one (or more) of the harpsichords and pianos on display in Bethersden. Some will continue to be thrilled with their purchases; some disappointed that, in the heat of the battle, they were unable to afford their cherished instrument. Still others may wonder if they made a wise investment. But it was all very interesting, and good to see some of the best instruments had been returned from long-term loans and at least for a time relocated with the rest of Mr. Colt's collection. Following so soon after the sale of Christopher Hogwood's instruments, and the dispersal of Richard Burnett's collection at Finchcock's, the Colt sale seemed to signify the end of an era, a double bar with no da capo.

2019 however, holds promise of many interesting events. In August at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, there will be an international gathering in which the English harpsichord owned by his grand-daughter Eleanor will be brought back to life in the form of a replica made by John Watson. At this gathering I have agreed to give a lecture which is intended to reflect on the lady's harpsichord and her American square piano into their cultural and musical context. In Oxford two weeks later I propose to speak at the conference at the Faculty of Music on the less-than- helpful activities of some earlier twentieth century collectors, particularly the dubious legacy of Paul de Wit, one time owner of the now discredited Shudi harpsichord of 1729 – and why this is so damaging.

Maybe – fingers crossed – 2019 will also see the publication in Barcelona of the long-delayed Zumpe book. Let's hope. But most of all we look forward to as yet unsuspected musical pleasures, beginning this Saturday when the Cole family in Cheltenham will all be together again for the opening Coffee Concert of the year at Holy Apostles.



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