A tone too subtle for modern ears: Stephen Hough mourns the fall of Bechstein, piano-makers to emperors of a bygone era

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The Independent Online
HOW many of us have had that experience, perhaps an early and lasting memory, of seeing in the corner of some old aunt's drawing room a tall, heavy, black box supporting an army of fading photographs which, when opened up, displayed a line of yellow keys and the mysterious, tarnished letters C BECHSTEIN?

While the Steinway gleams on the world's most glamorous concert platforms, evoking the image of a new Rolls-Royce, the Bechstein seems rather to suggest some vintage car under blankets in the garage, whether sparkling with care or a sad shell of rust and dust.

Last week saw the demise of the Bechstein Company, builders of the piano for which the Wigmore Hall was originally built, and which Brahms, Liszt, Debussy and Scriabin played and used when composing. From the company's foundation in 1856 in Berlin until the Second World War, the Bechstein piano played a major role in European musical life.

However, its decline was swift following the Bechstein family's friendship and support of Hitler, and the firm's location in the divided city of Berlin in the years after the war. The ill-will of the Forties and the uneven workmanship of the Fifties and beyond made it impossible for the piano's success to continue.

In addition, good cheap pianos from the Far East began to appear in the showrooms of the West, and, as with cars, offered a serious challenge in price and quality to the middle-range European instruments.

Tastes, too, had changed in the post-war years. Audiences and ears were becoming used to the greater brilliance and penetration of the Steinway, especially in concerto repertoire, where it seemed a better match for the string section of the orchestra, now more frequently using steel rather than gut for its strings.

The Steinway was always at the forefront of the development of the piano. Within two years of the New York company's foundation in 1853, it had developed the iron frame that came to be the standard skeleton for all serious pianos. There followed a string of patents, including the introduction of the capo d'astro bar in 1885, enabling the piano to utilise larger, more powerful hammers, resulting in a bigger sound. These developments continued into the 20th century and gave the Steinway its trailblazing image.

The Bechstein's more delicate nuances and shallower, slower-action response made it less suitable for the new virtuoso techniques being developed by such composer-pianists as Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. And recording studios had discovered that the clearer tone of the Steinway was more attractive for their ever-improving techniques.

As music colleges and concert halls began making ever greater use of the Steinway, a monopoly came into being, excused only by the extraordinary quality and beauty of the Steinway pianos. A notable exception was Jorge Bolet, who preferred to play Bechsteins when in Europe.

But earlier in the century there had been a genuine variety of opinions about the relative merits of the great piano firms. A pianist such as Horowitz would reject the Bechstein as being better fitted for chamber music, and became a loyal Steinway artist from the start of his career. He was only once seen publicly playing a piano other than a Steinway - when he played Scriabin's Bechstein in Moscow, captured by the television cameras.

Schnabel, by contrast, referred to the Steinway as being 'terribly loud' and insisted on taking two Bechstein concert grands plus a technician to the United States when he visited there before the Second World War.

Comparing the playing styles of these two pianists gives an indication of the differences between their preferred pianos. Many artists whose techniques had been developed on European pianos found the Steinway a handicap. Their approach to tonal control and colouring relied on the horizontal motion of the hand across a feather-light key rather than the greater vertical pressure required by the weightier actions of the American instruments.

Moriz Rosenthal, a renowned pupil of Liszt, is an interesting case in point. One of his trademarks was fast, fleet figuration exploiting extreme, soft dynamics, and he claimed that it was impossible for him to achieve his effects on the Steinway piano.

Away from the concert stage, perhaps the most important social factor contributing to the collapse of many piano companies has been the disappearance of the piano from our living- rooms. The whole notion of the piano as an instrument for the home, a magnet drawing friends around it for evenings of amateur entertainment, quickly disappeared in the postwar period.

The piano seemed like just another relic from the Victorian age, which, like an old wardrobe, took up too much musty space in the newly designed houses of the period. Its elephantine size and jaundiced ivories simply couldn't compete with the stampeding arrival of that smaller box, the television, with its bright, passive images. It was so much more appealing than Aunt Maud's arthritic fingers struggling with Chaminade's Autumne, or Uncle Harry's repeated attempts to find The Lost Chord.

So the pianos went to the antique shops, Maud and Harry went to the nursing home and, suddenly, a chapter of European life was finished. The piano seemed part of the baggage of imperialism; and the guitar's six strings and electronic keyboards suited the spring-cleaning mood of the age.

Unfortunately, the baby was thrown out with the Bechstein, and an unswimmable gulf was formed between the professional pianist and the now passive audience member, a gulf that has deeply affected concert life in the past few decades and seriously threatens its future as audience numbers decrease.

Has that piano which was by appointment to His Majesty Emperor William I of Prussia finally gone the way of the country over which he ruled? Has the black box in the corner of the drawing room become its own coffin, awaiting only the death of its owner before it is dragged to the junk shop without even the last anointing of some furniture polish?

Last week a friend of mine phoned me. 'Stephen, I know you're looking for a second piano. I've just seen a beauty - a big, black instrument with a gorgeous tone. It's a . . . Bechstein.'

(Photograph omitted)

Stephen Hough plays Bartok's Third Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms next Tuesday, at 7.30pm.

Hamish McRae is on holiday.