The King of the Instruments

The piano is a remarkable instrument: a fine-precision machine that can also inspire deep human emotions

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | June 2012

The ‘Ferrari red’ Turkish pianist Fazil Say plays with dramatic virtuosity (Photo: Kocaeli Üniversitesi)

I recently realised that the piano is my favourite instrument. The sound of its struck strings is simply gorgeous. And due to its inherent ability to house music that provides its own harmony, it probably has the richest musical literature of any instrument, barring the human voice.

It is also the only instrument that can really stand alone in a large concert hall: A single instrument and a single musician can fill the Großer Saal at the Musikverein with music and leave an audience on its feet, shouting for more.

This past concert season I heard a handful of piano recitals, at both the Musikverein and the Konzerthaus. The range of music was remarkable, but what struck me even more was the range of individual personalities and the emotions they awakened, coming across the footlights in vivid colours.

The Turkish pianist Fazil Say, for example, was Ferrari red, with his dashing looks and dramatic gestures. His Alla Turca movement of Mozart’s K331, a piece learned by any gifted piano student, had an aggressive cockiness that was tremendously exciting. And his own compositions, with their Oriental flavour and wild virtuosity, made me imagine I was seeing the reincarnation of Franz Liszt.

In contrast, the Brazilian Nelson Freire was satiny turquoise, even when playing Prokofiev, with absolute serenity that bordered on motionless. His sound was so smooth it was hard to imagine that the notes were physically separate from one another. Bright yellow was the colour for Evgeny Kissin, another extreme virtuoso. The wonder of truly great performances, such as his of Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata, is how they can make familiar music seem reborn. And his programming of Samuel Barber’s E-flat minor Sonata (1949) made me ask why the luscious music of this American composer is almost never heard here.

My favourite recital of the year, though, was that of Michiko Uchida playing all Schubert. An evening of stunning emotional depth, her colours were gold and velvety rose. While I am not typically greedy, her Schubert always makes me long for more. It has a straightforward simplicity and delicacy that nevertheless is profound; every note has a meaning.

But there is another side to these concerts: the piano tuner. András Mezö, the piano technician at the Musikverein for the last 27 years, is a tall, soft-spoken yet determined man. He is the person you see during intermission sticking his nose under the hood (so to speak) of the grand piano on stage, fiddling around in its innards. Usually ignored by the audience rushing out to get a glass of Sekt, he is responsible for the Musikverein’s four big Steinways, as well as the various other smaller pianos in the house.

Before each concert, he prepares and tunes the instrument the pianist has chosen. Violinists travel with their own instruments; they know their violin’s subtle intricacies, tiny flaws, its reactions to heat or humidity. But with the exception of great virtuosos like Vladimir Horowitz and the Viennese émigré Rudolf Serkin, who travelled with their own Steinways, pianists have to rely on, and experiment with, what they find at the hall. What courage! Thus, Mezö’s work is intimately connected to the greatness of many of the piano recitals we hear in Vienna.

Good piano technicians are a rare breed. As concert pianist James Boyk writes: "Technicians repair and adjust the mechanism of the piano, with its roughly 2,000 moving, vibrating or adjustable parts. A concert technician does all this, plus tuning, under performance-day pressure, while being supportive of the artist. This medley of abilities requires complete mastery and a special temperament…."

What does a pianist look for when choosing which piano to play? First, the "touch" of the keys, including their lightness or heaviness, and then whether the dynamics are flexible, whether it is possible to play very loudly and then to whisper. And the sound quality or tone of the instrument is important, whether its "colour" is light or dark.

This is all very individual and personal. For example, Daniel Barenboim, according to Mezö, likes a sound that is very bright, as bright as possible without "shouting". And Ivo Pogorelich likes the keys to feel heavy.

And what is needed to be a good piano technician? The first thing Mezö cites is patience. And knowing something about music. He certainly does: Coming from a family of musicians, his uncle is the cellist of the Bartók Quartet and a professor at the Liszt Music Academy in Budapest.

And then, a technician needs absolute silence. When tuning, he listens to the oscillations, the "beats" between the tones. While Mezö says that this is something "anyone can learn if they are at all musical", not anyone can tune beautifully. While a beautiful tuning can’t be defined objectively, according to Mezö it is still something that aware listeners hear subconsciously.

In the end, says Mezö in a typical gesture of humbleness, the greatness of a pianist comes from their own hands, not from this or that adjustment of the piano. Although Boyk relates a story about an eminent piano technician, Kenyon Brown: After a performance of Arthur Rubinstein, Brown exclaimed, "That was very beautiful, Mr. Rubinstein." Said Rubinstein, "We have made it so."

The technician and the pianist: a collaboration that, together with the king of the instruments – the piano – will hopefully long continue to bring special moments in the concert hall.

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