Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Renovation of a Steingraeber & Söhn upright

For the interested ...

On You Tube (it may not be there forever) there is a documentation of the renovation of a Steingraeber & Söhn upright piano, 150 cm high, built in 1901.  105 cm = 59 inches or an inch shorter than 5 feet.  For practical comparison, we'll say that an upright piano of this height or higher represents a scale equivalent to a 5'6" - 5'8" grand piano.  We'll also say that many of the pianos of this era may not be particularly worth restoring.  A Steingraeber & Söhn definitely would be.  

Then we also have where this was done, in Dornbirn, Austria, which is a small city situated in the farthest western province of Austria, parked up against Switzerland, and not far by train from Zurich.  Dornbirn is at an altitude of 1,400 feet with a population of 45,000.  I'm sure it's a wonderful place to live and work.

There is a business behind this, Pianohaus Dornbirn, which has a site on the web: http://www.pianohaus.at  Sorry, it's all in German, but this is a little piano store in the town of Dornbirn.  They sell Ravenstein and Sauter pianos.  We're familiar with Sauter, another fine German make, but Ravenstein (many piano brands have the word "stein" or stone in them), seems to be a piano connected with Taiyo Piano Europe GmbH which is Yamaha by a German name.     

Michael Szécsényi would appear to be the proprietor / technician who is doing the work on the videos.  What he does is called "Reparaturen" and is closer to repair than to rebuilding a piano.  Most of his methods are used elsewhere to my knowledge including the patch he makes for a tuning pin at the end of the pinblock (when we come to it in the videos).  After you've seen these, you'll begin to understand all the steps that go into repairing or renovating a piano.  Rebuilding one is almost as complex a job as making one in the first place.

In this first video we see the piano before the repairs.  It's an antique carved case, but inside we want to make mention of the light colored action parts.  This indicates that a restoration of the action may not be as difficult (or impossible) a job as it might be for some other piano where the action parts have turned dark, almost black, with oxidation over the years.  Once this happens, the action parts become brittle and subject to breakage.  Even if this was as fine a make as a Steingraeber  & Söhn, with oxidized action parts, the sane response is to have them replaced rather than, as we shall see, merely cleaned up.

He begins with the first place the pianist has contact with the instrument, the keys.  He has elected to restore the existing playing surface. 

He continues work on the keys, showing a method for filling in a chipped key.  More sanding (polishing) of the keys.  The buff, off-shiny key tops, probably real ivory, are going to be a real pleasure to play.

Now we get into the cleaning of the action to see how the parts have weathered over 100 years of use, or neglect.  He removes the hammers, always keeping them in proper order.  More cleaning.  He wants to get as much of that dirt, ash, etc. off the action parts as possible to halt the oxidation process.  The cleaned parts look pretty good.

Now he's going after the inside of the piano, removing case parts as he goes, cleaning as he goes.  He removes the tension bars first.  Then he begins removing the strings.  He wants to give this piano another 40 to 60 years of tuning stability and a new fresh voice by replacing all its strings.  He cleans up under what is called the apron of a bridge, probably someplace nobody has gotten to since the piano was made.  We then see him drill an exceptionally large hole in the pinblock and notice that there is a crack running through the place, indication that the pinblock has failed there and probably will no longer keep that string in tune.  The solution is to insert a hollow dowel which will fit the new tuning pin.  Then very importantly he checks the crown / down bearing of the soundboard and yes it has plenty.  Some rebuilders may notice that at this point in their project they have a soundboard without crown or even negative crown.  This will effect the piano's power and volume potential and usually (especially if the piano is a grand) it will require replacement of the soundboard and its constituent parts, ribs and bridges.  That of course is quite a lot of extra work.  He isn't doing that here.  This will be the same soundboard the piano came with.

We see him continue work on that pinblock patch.  Then he drills the rest of the holes for the newer larger pins.  These will use the old pinblock but with new settings will provide better tuning stability.  All the old parts are reconditioned.  He cleans the tension strips and bridge, each contributes to the tone of the piano.  There is a lot of different kinds of felt used in a piano and it all gets replaced.  Next you see him restringing the piano.

The restored hardware goes back on.  Then there are more little taps to make sure everything is in line and then the damper felt goes in behind the bridge.  The bass strings which are overstrung over the rest of the strings go on last.  As this happens you may notice that underneath some of the strings are also wound in copper wire.  The intention when designing a piano scale, which is the number, thickness and tension of strings required to produce the range of tones in a piano, is to provide as few noticeable breaks in the piano's tone as one strikes the notes down the piano from middle c to the bottom.  Scale design is something of the alchemy in piano design and some of the best have been around a long time. 

He wants to make sure this piano has an unobstructed, modern, low friction play to it.  He replaces all the keybed hardware.  He removes all the old felt and replaces that too.  So many felt bushings!

Watch the intricate work here to replace key felts.  He has to do this 88 times.  Another set of felts at the end of each key need replacing too.  He makes these by hand.  We've noticed the keyboard getting cleaner all along.  He cleans the keys and the keybed (I'm sure an added pleasure to the tuner / technician who will be seeing this piano) and inserts the keys.  You can still see the spot where he fixed the chipped key.

More critical work on the action, replacing the jack wires, again to make it play easier.  Cleaning as he goes.  More felt replacement.  Then amazingly, each of the existing hammers is reshaped by removing a little excess felt.  What this is doing is allowing this instrument to acquire a new voice, one that it will have after it has been played good and strong for a few years and new grooves develop on those hammers.  The pedals are polished.

More action felt replacements.  He has to make these by hand too.  The action is looking cleaner all the time too.  This piano's owners were lucky to have an instrument that was kept up to the extent that the action didn't oxidize over the century.  He's attaching the straps, these parts that are unique to most upright actions and required to allow the hammer to fall back and away from the string.  The fallboard needs work too.  We get a view of the restored hammers.  Polish everything that you can as its not going to get done again for a very long time. 

The action deck goes on and it's time to see that everything is matched up to work.  Some keys need adjustments - all those felts.  We get the first tantalizing sounds from the repaired, refurbished piano.  Then, tune it up.  A newly restrung piano will require at least six tunings in fairly rapid succession and more over its first few years of use to maintain tuning stability.  Then a few chords and passages on the new piano.  It sounds very good and I'm sure that in person it would make quite a statement.  Then he has to show his modernity by playing a little bluesy jazz.  It comes off pretty well here too.

That gives a pretty good idea of what goes into a restoration work, not a rebuild.  If you're going in for a real rebuild, the result will be brand new throughout and is kind of like what one goes for in some automobiles and trucks these days.  People with rebuilt pianos, even with new factory made pianos, are going to want famous named actions, hammers and strings in them.  There are specialists in soundboards, keyboards, etc. too. 

We are asked why more of these vintage large old uprights aren't restored or rebuilt.  The short answer is that most of them were really not as good as that old Steingraeber & Söhn was.  Along with it is the speed of most upright actions that simply cannot compare with the direct control one gets with a grand action.  What is being done more often these days, and it's usually a good solution, is that if the old piano case is still in good condition and the owners just want a new piano, then the original case is used and inside is placed a modern, usually European, piano, complete with soundboard, plate, action, keyboard, the works.  When one approaches one of these all the aspects of the original are there but when one plays it, one has a superior modern instrument instead.  Quite a good arrangement if you ask me.

Now to conclude and to maybe give some idea of the real, very distinctive  Steingraeber & Söhn sound, here's eight of their grands playing Rossini: 



Monday, April 12, 2010

Chopin Waltz in A Flat major Op. 34 #1: First Pass

Among the most recent and earnest endeavors has been the attainment of this piece at performance level, something I used to think unthinkably far above my abilities. For a number of reasons, I no longer think so.

The edition I'm using is quite readable and the pages well organized. It's the Mikuli edition distributed by Dover. I can usually recommend Dover editions, and this edition of the Chopin waltzes and scherzos is hereby recommended, with the only caveat that the measures are not numbered. Should you absolutely require your music to have numbered measures, Henle editions usually do.

Before dissecting the piece, as a prelude to serious study (something I always do, but am at this time recording here as it happens), we sample a few recordings of it available on the net at this time (these links may not always be there in future):

First Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950), the Romanian pianist and composer whose career was cut short by death from Hodgkin's disease at age 33. Before that Lipatti had been accorded every imaginable accolade to establish him firmly in the pianist hall of fame.

(We hereby announce that a Pianists' Hall of Fame page shall be established here on this blog. The data kept on it shall consist of the name of the pianist, their dates, nationalities and notable performances available on line - with no guarantee of the link)

Recorded at Abbey Road Studio n. 3, London 24 September 1947, Recording Producer, Walter Legge, here is Dinu Lippati playing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pC8m0xmK3s

Of this performance we can say that the piano is probably a Hamburg Steinway D (Concert Grand 8'11") and the recording techniques about the best available at that time, though recorded in monaural sound as Lipatti died long before the introduction of stereo.

I'd also call this a restrained performance, despite the rapids in the cadenza near the end of this piece.

Compare what you just heard to this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa8KV8Wt9WM

Moura Lympany (1916-2005) (really Mary Johnstone) a great and beloved English pianist, not too well known now, was long one of my favorite interpreters of Chopin. What I'm picking up here is a gliding effortless quality to the way she plays it. It has energy but about as much restraint as Lipatti's version. I like the fluidity of Lympany's approach though and want to incorporate that into my own performance.

Our third performance comes form a Chopin celebration in Poland in 2009 played by Marek Drewnowski. I don't know who he is, but I like the way he plays! 

In this performance, almost certainly a Hamburg Steinway concert grand is being used, there is a less conscious control of tempo; it speeds up or slows down as dictated by the mood of the music and the capabilities of the pianist, which in this case are formidable. It occurs to me that anyone attempting to play this piece must master it to the point that it becomes second nature to play it. Marek's facility with the cadenza and the end is superb.

There are any number of times one would hear this piece played by amateur pianists.  Even if they make mistakes it is enough to give them encouragement that they attempted to play it at all.  Give them the credit their courage deserves.  At your average party or recital of amateur pianists, this would be the high end, because at least one was up there and daring to play something like this in front of people and if one is lucky not to have to stop for anything. One's performance could almost come apart especially near the end, when one is admonished to stick to the tempo one observed throughout the piece before trying to speed it up as everyone does, but manage to finish without a pause.

We need to be more tolerant of others, and of ourselves, and how well we are able to play at all as no matter how accomplished we are, there was once a time that we too were green and didn't know how to do much at the piano.

What we'll try to do is go through the process of how I will go about learning this piece and committing to memory so as to play it at least as well as Moura Lympany, or if not, then certainly in her spirit.

So far, I have read through most of it in front of the cadenza. The piece is broken into the following components:

Fanfare and Introduction to E flat 7th cadence

First waltz (A) in A flat major - repeated
First waltz (B) in A flat major

Second waltz in D flat major - repeated
Minore in B flat minor (relative to D flat major)
Second waltz in D flat major
First waltz (B) in D flat major
First waltz (A) in A flat major
First waltz (B) in A flat major - leading into

Reprise - Coda

Many more times in the past than I can even count, this method of first dissecting a complicated piece of music, made the learning of it easier and the retention of it more certain. Like having a roadmap, one needs to know where one is, as well as where one is going.

Current focus, the Fanfare and Introduction, First waltz (A) and First waltz (B) all in one sitting and from memory. My technique will be to slowly assemble each part, get the patterns into my fingers, make it effortless (I don't care if it sounds complicated, it's my job to simplify the playing of all those notes, so that I can play it). I will need to repeat the same passages thirty or forty times easily and that many times without any mistakes.

Once I can do that, and have meanwhile added more to the growing chain of musical events, I can begin sculpting it, so that it begins to sound a little like the way Marek Drewnowski plays it.

I may, probably will, also begin starting with the cadenza and the end as a separate section and may then join the two with the Second waltz and Minore section.

Those are the beginnings of the way I shall go about this project.  I'll keep the blog informed of my progress.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Interview - Inaugural

"In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind. There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything."

Marcel Proust
Within A Budding Grove
Place Names: The Place

So, you're beginning this interview with this quotation, why? Do you believe in it? Do you agree with it?

It struck me as odd mostly. I don't believe anyone learns much of anything during adolescence, for one thing. In fact, I'd like to believe that a quotation like this is mostly rubbish. To be clear, I'm suggesting that a quotation like this represents a kind of tired wheeze, that many would like to believe, just so that they can bow out of life gracefully without regret.

You think that's what Proust meant?

Who knows what Proust meant.

You decided to start reading Proust-

A while back, maybe as early as the fall of 2008.

Why? What were your reasons?

Mostly curiosity. I really wanted to find out if I could get more out of it than I had during college, when I hadn't read all the way through it either.

You still intend to?

Yes, but it is a little trying at times.

Some say you can't read it in anything but French.

Yes, and you brought that up to remind me that our friend the late Kenneth Simpson Seggerman, who passed in 2007, thought so too. He'd read it in the original French of course. What those of us with barely enough passable French can readily observe in the best English translation are the sounds of certain French names that are retained in the text having associations and meanings that directly color the characters. Other period writers from Thackeray through Anthony Trollope do this, so it is not a unique literary device. It makes for good satire most of the time.

You're a little past this spot then?

Yes, he's in Balbec with his grandmother and he's just about to comment on the opinions of his friend Bloch.

Well, you didn't intend this to become a discussion of Proust, did you?

No, but I wouldn't mind doing a dissection of this quote.


First the world to me is not thronged with monsters and with gods. I can't remember a time without certain personages held up to receive universal admiration for their accomplishments, as if they were gods, and it seems to me an equal number were selected to be universally regarded as monsters. The fact is that we can have all the peace of mind we desire, just so long as we content ourselves with the reality that every one else on this planet is a person like ourselves. The proffered gods aren't worth being worshipped and the monsters not worth being feared. We could all under the right circumstances do just as well or just as vilely as they. These kinds of appeals to our emotions should probably be avoided as counter-productive.

As for performing things we later regret, that is pointless, a waste of time and energy. Spontaneity is probably overrated as well, since most of it that accomplishes little of practical value (including its applications in the fine arts), is the result of fearlessness (which can be reckless) and lack of experience. I'm increasingly bored by the excessively nihilistic rubbish we are expected to revere as even popular art.

But, I suppose I'm most bothered by the last phrase including that bit about being in full conformity with the rest of society. Such was and probably still is more important to the average Frenchman than it is to the average American. We'd understand it differently and it would probably vary from one ethnicity to another.

So you think Proust was talking mainly about the French bourgeois society of his times?

Mainly, yes. It's a very good mirror of a past time, one that for good or ill, will likely never come again, though certain features of it are, I am sure, still in play in contemporary French society. That's one thing that gives Proust universal appeal. I'm not sure, but there might be as good examples from writers in different times and different cultures. That's one reason to read great literature, that it expands one's awareness of different ways of living and seeing things.

OK, well you gave me a few points of departure for today's interview. It has been a while since we did this. Much has changed, much remains the same. I guess we can dismiss the areas that are not going to figure much in this blog first. You said that your blog was not going to be about politics or religion.

That's correct.

Can you perhaps tell us why?

Well, let's start with politics. My specific reason for bowing out of any political discussion, and that includes to some extent economics as well, is that I see no reason to add more to the confusion than already exists: since I have good reason to believe that everyone is having to deal with the fog of disinformation, there is no point in wading into areas where my sources of information are though I would consider them better than most anyone else's, if they bothered to look and reason carefully they would find them too, not just about today's events, but about a whole history of events going back at least 250 years. Others do a far better job than I can, and no I don't feel like putting up any recommendations either.

So no links? You will be posting links on your blog site?

Yes, but none will have a religious or political purpose.

OK, and religion?

Well, the question invariably arises, people ask me whether I believe in God? Often I'm almost of the impression that the person asking wonders if I regard belief in God in the same sense as belief in Santa Claus. I'm always surprised that people say they believe in things for which there is far less tangible evidence. How about the rejoinder, which God?

(chuckles) You mean ...

I mean, I can make a simple statement about my belief in God and it still boils down to an act of faith at least as big as for belief in half a dozen pivotal scientific theories.

And you don't ever intend to go there either?

Of course not.

So now we come to the second quote, one of your own, that was actually quoted in a popular book...

Yes, it was an amazing book, really. I was completely impressed by it. I'd purposely waited to read it after I had cleared the decks. It's a usual practice of mine to get into something when the initial popularity has worn off. I did that with The Lord of The Rings too, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience when I got to it. Read right through them too.

You recommend Tolkien then, do you?

C. S. Lewis too, especially his space trilogy.

OK, back to this quote of yours. It appears in Perri Knize's book, Grand Obsession, page 57:

"When one sits down at one's piano and begins to play as only you or I can, there is no idealism to be reached for, the experience is THERE, right now, instantaneous and totally REAL. When one is able to realize with clarity the breathtaking achievement of some great master, to the point that one is almost not conscious of playing as being played by transcendent forces, or even transcendent beings, one is not trying for some ideal, one has achieved a state of being that exists in few other human experiences.

"That to me seems the point behind all this fuss about pianos; the MUSIC they make, and we with our own two hands, can become at least for a few moments, immortal. For you see, all the shouting over political and religious issues will never accomplish what a single simple piece of exquisite piano music will accomplish. Music can melt the coldest heart, can cause grown men to cry openly, can move women to fainting, can stop wars! It can it still can."

So this blog is about religion. (laughs)

It will inevitably be about music. In so far as it involves the piano and me and the music I am committing to performance level, it will be about a kind of religion.

You do it every day.

Practice the piano? Yes.

And you will be commenting on the music you are learning, as in the old Pianist's Diary days?

Even better than it was back then, I hope.

Anything else?

Lots else. I'll begin shortly posting recipes with pictures. You can call these "survivalist" or "back to the earth" kinds of food.

Sounds yummy, what else?

There will be occasional articles and probably more interviews like this one as well.

Right. Will you accept questions from the audience?

Of course, just send them to me at my e-mail address. I wont be revealing the source of the question unless specifically told to do so.

Good, and it should be known too that David can't respond right away because he has other things going on that will take up his time, like playing Chopin and reading Proust, which he is currently doing. He reports that he has made some kind of discovery that he can now play Chopin pieces he formerly would have regarded as difficult. We await his results.