Below is a letter to an eminent piano designer which we wrote when two famous international artists corresponded with us about the disappointing standards of pianos they encounter in European venues.
Our business is in part re-building of older pianos to bring them back to the condition they were when new. This usually involves re- forming the soundboard with the original timber, re-capping the bridge, fitting new tuning pin block and of course doing all the other routine rebuild replacement of wearing and action parts.
Because we do this to very high standards of workmanship and materials, which are at least equal to those used by the Makers in their day, it gives us a unique comparison between the performance of vintage pianos and the modern equivalent. Our view is that there definitely were vintage years when Steinway, Bosendorfer and Bechstein produced really exceptional pianos. . In our view, the Steinway vintage years were 1927 to 1939, the Bosendorfer years 1910 to 1925 and the Bechstein years 1909 to 1914 plus 1933 to 1939. The make that in our opinion shows least fluctuation in quality during the last century is Bosendorfer and Bechstein the most. We now routinely buy in pianos from these vintage years for re-build. We therefore think that .x......and ......y....(Famous artists names who criticsed modern venue pianos) are expressing the truth, and not a dream when they year for the quality and sound of pianos from the last century.
What we are not sure about is the effect of ageing on the timber in pianos. Perceived wisdom is that old pianos are worthless but old violins are treasures. We think that untruth comes from old pianos generally being neglected in terms of reasonable maintenance and the fact that few restorers bother to or are capable of restoring the collapsed dome of an old piano.
Modern quality pianos clearly improve progressively for the first 10 to 15 years of life, and very rapidly in the first 3 years. Our perceptive clients here almost always select the Bosendorfers we have held for around a year since new. Bosendorfers around 20 to 30 years old all sound to us better than the absolutely brand new ones that are still "wet behind the ears". Yet there is nothing to suggest that standards of manufacture have deteriorated: if anything, the reverse is true. Like violins, we suspect that long seasoned wood and air seasoned timber for the acoustic parts of pianos has a very beneficial effect. For that reason I doubt if Stuart pianos for example, could improve with age even if that were needed, because they start with timber some 1000 years old.) Quality pianos in the first half of last century typically had 100 to 200 year old timber for their soundboards. That wood is now 200 to 300 years old when we re-build the piano. Is this why they sound better? Were they as good in their early days when new from the factory? We just do not know.
Modern pianos mostly use wood recently felled and steam cured either wholly or partly.
Apart from material quality, the model is also critical. Vintage Steinway B and O seem to us their best models. We get very cautious when
offered the other small grands, Model A or model C. Vintage Bechstein seems best over 7 foot. The three best vintage Bosendorfer models are 200, 225 and 290.
The best baby grand by a mile is Steingraeber 168 [now designated the 170]. The Phoenix carbon fibre soundboard model has a performance not much different from a reasonable concert grand. This model is always worth rebuild.
Hopefully one day one of the great international artists will break the mould and risk the wrath and retribution of the big name builders by playing the superb pianos of the new millennium. These pianos are indisputedly and scientifically measured to be far superior in action, sound dynamic range, sustain and power to those designed in the last century. Until that courageous artist comes forward, audiences will never know what a really fine piano using modern technology can offer to regenerate classical music. Simultaneously venue managers need to realise that the classical music on which their livelihood depends requires that they must enable rather than inhibit this advance for their own longer term security.