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On My New Piano
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in C major K 159/L 104 [2:22]
Sonata in D major K 9/L 413 [4:13]
Sonata in E major K 380/L 23 [6:39]
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
32 Variations on an Original Theme WoO 80 [12:38]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor op. 23 [9:59]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)/Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal S 450 [7:50]
Funérailles S 173/7 [12:25]
Mephisto Waltz No. 1: The Dance in the Village Inn S 514 [12:11]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
rec. October 2015, Teldex Studio, Berlin.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 6724 [68:19]

Daniel Barenboim conceived and commissioned his new piano design from Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene, unveiling it at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2015. On that occasion the new piano was compared alongside a traditional Steinway, and it is a shame we don’t have at least a small comparative sample on this recording, bearing in mind the potential tweaks in colour with recordings, intentional or otherwise, between the actual sound and what you receive at home. Teldex Studio is often used for piano recordings and the closest we can probably get by way of a direct comparison is something like Barenboim’s recording of Schubert Piano Sonatas (review), though differences between sessions, repertoire and recording team can be as big as a change in venue.

Incremental developments and improvements in piano design come in from time to time, usually involving the mechanical action but also including the extra power found by Stuart & Sons in Australia (review) which I encountered at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music a while ago. Barenboim’s design is visually most distinctive in having all of the strings aligned in parallel rather than overlapping, and his search has been one more for distinctiveness of colour rather than increase in volume: “There is a difference in the quality of the sound ... it has more transparency, more clarity and by itself less blend but it gives you the opportunity to create a blend yourself as a player.” Changes to the direction in grain with the soundboard, materials used and positioning of pins and hammers all contribute to a difference in feel, and as any pianist will tell you, there are always adaptations one has to make between instruments: “It is a different relationship between the tip of the fingers and the key. And the pedalling ... the transparency of the sound makes you rethink the use of the pedals.” Steinway’s premium design is admired for its homogeneity of sound, and Barenboim first approached the firm with his ideas for a dream piano. In the end it was Steinway that supplied the components for the new instrument.

Parallel strings are a feature of early grand pianos, which took their framework from harpsichord design. While there is a chameleon effect amongst the widely ranging repertoire in this recording I can’t help being reminded by elements of fortepiano sound, especially in the upper registers, which have a pungent twang in their general sound colour. The brightness in the upper registers doesn’t take away from a nicely balanced but rich lower resonance which comes into its own with the more romantic works. The tolling bells that open Wagner’s Solemn March from Parsifal have a richly atmospheric character, the mist of sustain pedal demonstrating where clarity can still emerge from this kind of texture. Going back to the Scarlatti, in which the mid register of the instrument is explored through articulation and expressiveness you can hear Barenboim delighting in the possibilities offered by something like the Sonata in D minor, where little splashes of the upper and lower ranges are layered in dynamic and minutely examined at a relatively slow but still musically effective tempo. Beethoven is an entirely different world in which lower triads are joyfully punched out from time to time, showing where we have the best of both worlds with this instrument – that sense of character from a fortepiano with the sheer range of resonance and attack available on a modern instrument.

The recital finishes with that figurehead of pianism Franz Liszt, the massed strings of the piano being set in motion with the forceful opening to Funérailles. Barenboim avoids bombast here and in the busy Mephisto Waltz No. 1, one senses as much through constant listening as anything else, but this is the whole point: just as one might re-evaluate a familiar orchestral work when heard with a different orchestra, these pieces are in a sense being given new premières in this recording. It’s hard to describe, but there is a palpable difference of ‘heft’ between this instrument and the usual Steinway, a difference in response as well as in sound, and you can tune yourself into this quite easily after a while.

Comparisons in terms of performance aren’t really useful here. I’m sure greater technical brilliance can be found elsewhere in some of the trickiest passages in the Liszt, but Barenboim is usually excellent without being overly controversial, bringing out the best in his instrument and delivering a massively entertaining and effective recital at the same time. As has been said, no-one is claiming this to be a ‘better’ instrument than the best of traditional designs, and further improvements can no doubt be made to this model which as it stands only has two examples in existence. This is much more than a prototype however, and the results stand on their own two feet. Whether you prefer the differences on show here will be up to you, but I’m all in favour of different colour options when it comes to pianos. I fear DG’s title On My New Piano will always raise a grin for its unintended sense of double entendre, but the blame for this can be laid at my naughty British upbringing.

Dominy Clements


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