Keys To A Pianistic Revolution

Around the time he turned 60, in 1871, Franz Liszt decided to divide the rest of his life between three homes. The Duke of Weimar had given him a former gardener’s lodge in lavish parkland at the heart of German culture. The Pope provided his Abbé with a suite of rooms in the Vatican. And the Hungarian Parliament, founding a Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, set aside an apartment within the school for the great musician to occupy at his leisure.

Not that Liszt was one for leisure. When he wasn’t making music, he taught. Students came from 23 countries to study piano with its lord and master. So many came to Weimar, practising day and night, that the council passed a byelaw, restricting piano playing to certain hours and with all windows shut. Liszt took no fee for his lessons and turned no one away. Weak students were allowed to sit around the studio walls, watching as future stars were instructed. Génie oblige was Liszt’s motto: genius has its obligations. The duty of an artist is the perpetuation of art.

The house in Weimar, when I last passed by, had little to commend it by way of bottled atmosphere. But the rooms at the Liszt Academy are steeped in Liszt’s values, at the hub of a teaching institution packed with students from all over the world, many nowadays from the Far East. Liszt’s living quarters are preserved as a museum. A brass sign in Hungarian and Gothic German informs us that Franz Liszt receives visits between three and four on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons.

Inside, there is a small bedroom with a narrow bed and writing desk, portraits of his friends upon the walls. The teaching rooms are a clutter of grand pianos, sent to Liszt in search of endorsement. Two US-made Chickerings, the summit of 19th-century technology, still play thunderously well. An 1873 Bösendorfer, whose Viennese manufacturer was Liszt’s close friend, is distinctly more anaemic.

Concert grands aside, Liszt packed his rooms with every variety of keyboard: a groaning harmonium, for organ-like sonorities; a mute keyboard, for keeping the fingers supple on long journeys; a glass piano that pings out perfect pitch, never needing to be retuned. Best of all is a Bösendorfer keyboard that slides out of his desktop, relieving Liszt of the need to walk across the room to find a chord while writing a score. It is the prototype of the modern executive’s retractable computer keyboard, an ingenious romantic convenience. Liszt’s involvement with the development of the piano was immersive and unique. No other artist showed such interest in the mechanics of an instrument.

Violinists, playing archaic Cremona models, know no more of their upkeep and repair than how to change a string and rub rosin on a bow. Cellists obsess over the angle of their metal pin. Liszt alone challenged craftsmen to build him a better machine. From his early days in Paris, battering Érards and Pleyels, to his death in 1886 at Bayreuth among his son-in-law’s unresolved chords, Liszt was a beacon of progress and possibility. Between his 1867 Chickering and that of 1880, you can hear just how far the piano advanced in his prime.

After Liszt, progress stopped. Steinway, the new market leader, mopped up its rivals (“we took Chickering out,” one executive told me) and signed up the leading virtuosi as exclusive artists. Steinway’s last significant patent, a process for bending timber within the case, was granted while Liszt was still alive. Almost 80 per cent of today’s pianos are maufactured in China.

Which is (partly) why I returned to Budapest last month to behold one of the wonders of the postmodern age: a piano that stands proudly on its own two feet. Yes, you read that right: two feet, not three. The absence of a third leg, the designers argue, allows greater projection by stopping sound from seeping into the floor.

And there is much else that is counter-intuitive about the new piano. The soundboard — the sheet inside that produces the resonance —is not made of forest wood but of a carbon composite. The keyboard has 90 keys, two more than normal, incorporating an extra-low G and G# that Bartók sometimes uses. Seen from the back of a hall, the instrument resembles an ocean-going yacht crossed with an Italian racing car. If looks could kill, this piano is a danger to society.

It is born out of the frustrations of a Hungarian pianist, Gergely Bogányi. A romantic, happiest in the worlds of Schubert and Schumann, Bogányi inspired inventors and engineers with a Lisztian vision of a piano that would hold the eye as much as the ear. After ten years of trial and error, and with small cash injections from the Hungarian government and the EU, a piano was born: two to be precise — the workshop prototype, and the one that Gergely played last month in the Liszt Academy at the instrument’s concert debut.

I watched it being tuned in an empty hall and later played to a packed audience. The first strike of a middle C told me this was unlike any piano I knew. The contact of key on string is head-on, nothing fuzzy at the edges, no after-burr. There is a much-vaunted “warmth” to the Steinway sound. This is cooler, a trifle analytical, but no less agree-able as the ear adjusts. The pianissimi are delicious as clear broth, the middle dynamics are nutritious and only the heaviest of triple-fortes feels oppressive — not that Schubert or Schumann ever meant to break windows. In modern music, in Ligeti and Kurtág, I suspect it would be perfect.

Gergely is, so far, the only artist of consequence to test the new piano. Tamás Vásáry has given some general words of approval and others will flutter fingers down the keyboard in the months to come. Plans are in motion to manufacture ten more concert instruments. This is not a piano that will change the market any time soon. What it does, however, is rekindle Liszt’s mission to free music from its physical corsets and create both a sound of beauty and an object of desire.

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