Pleyel pianos shuts up shop after two centuries
15 November 2013
Pleyel fan: Chopin© Tully Potter Collection
French piano maker Pleyel has ceased operations after 206 years and the manufacture of an estimated 250,000 instruments following ‘repeated financial losses and a very low level of production’.
Founded in 1807 and famously Chopin’s piano of choice, Pleyel’s recent history had been dogged by declining sales in the face of competition from China and Korea. Since the turn of the century its annual production rates had fallen from around 1,700 pianos to just 20 labour-intensive instruments requiring 1,500 working hours to complete in 2012. Earlier this year, the company was acquired by a French investment fund but failed to gain sufficient new orders.
During its long history, Pleyel introduced the upright piano to France, built a concert hall that became the centre of 19th-century Parisian concert life, subsumed the Erard and Gaveau piano brands and was famed for its bright, clear sound.
The company’s last workshop in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis has now been closed with the loss of 14 jobs and the demise of a brand described by Pleyel’s deputy head of workshop Fabrice Perret as ‘the Ferrari of the piano world’.
French industry minister Arnaud Montebourg has said he will meet Pleyel to discuss ways to save the company.
Multi-venue simultaneous piano concert celebrates Richter
13 November 2013
Composer Jim Aitchison© Alex Walker
A concert inspired by visual artist Gerhard Richter will be
performed on four pianos – with a catch: each instrument in is a different
The Yamaha Disklaviers – separated by 300 miles – will be remotely controlled by a parent instrument at Falmouth’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA), and played by just one pianist, Roderick Chadwick. The other participating venues are the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), Goldsmiths University and Yamaha Music London.
Jim Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study translates paintings by Richter into musical responses for solo piano and string quartet. The project draws on themes of chance, disturbance, sequences and memory; inspired by Richter’s output.
‘Richter’s paintings have a very clear sense of reticence
and anonymity; there is a tangible sense of distance. It might sound crude, but
I wanted to explore the real graphical distance where the performance is
forcibly separate from the audience,’ explains Aitchison. ‘It will be a
disconcerting experience to see a piano that appears automated – but it won’t
be, as there will be a “live” performer, and the exact nuances of his
performance will be created in the other three spaces, in real time.’
Chadwick will open the performance at AMATA in Falmouth, triggering the three remote Disklavier pianos in London to perform by themselves (via data transfer over broadband), to their respective audiences. Images from Richter’s 2012 Tate Modern show will also be projected.
Richter’s practice of passing the same images through various processes will be evoked further when the same musical responses for piano are passed to the Kreutzer Quartet at the RAM, where Aitchison is an honorary research fellow, and transmitted back to all of the other venues via an audio link.
‘Richter passes the same image through different filters, so I am recomposing the same music for string quartet – it’s not a rearrangement; to convert piano textures into string quartet requires rethinking,’ says Aitchison.
‘Terry Riley did something similar in the eighties with
NASA, but to my knowledge I don’t think that this type of composition has be
written before. Crucially, it is not written for Disklavier, it is written for
the piano, and there will be a legacy for pianists.’
The concert – which takes place on 22 February at 7:30pm –
is supported by Arts Council England, the PRS for Music Foundation and Yamaha
Music Europe GmbH (UK).
Bechstein launches online photo competition
11 November 2013
Berlin-based piano manufacturer Bechstein is offering fans the opportunity to win a new upright or a trip to its workshop in Saxony.
The giveaway is part of the makers’ 160th anniversary celebrations. To be in with a chance of winning, entrants are required to post their favourite piano photographs to the Bechstein Facebook page. The winner will be selected from a shortlist of the ten most popular images.
There are two prize options: either a new W.Hoffmann V 112 upright piano – made by C Bechstein Europe – or a trip to the C. Bechstein headquarters in Berlin and the manufactory in Saxony including concert tickets, a factory tour, hotel accommodation and travel expenses.
The competition closes on 24 January.
Bechstein released its 160th anniversary model earlier this year; a ‘golden grand’ piano that took a team of 90 workers more than 2,500 hours to create. It is finished with 24-karat gold leaf and is a replica of a piano Carl Bechstein created for Queen Victoria in the late 19th century.
Leeds College of Music to host special André Tchaikowsky symposium
29 October 2013
André Tchaikowsky at the keyboard
Pianist and lecturer Nico de Villiers outlines the life and work of composer André Tchaikowsky ahead of a symposium at Leeds College of Music on 1 November
Arthur Rubinstein referred to Tchaikowsky as ‘one of the finest pianists of our generation’. Indeed, it was Rubinstein’s assistance – and the guidance of the impresario Sol Hurok – that launched Tchaikowsky’s international performing career. Tchaikowsky studied in Brussels with Polish pianist Stefan Askenase and composition with Nadia Boulanger. By 1960 he had established a rhythm between performance and composition, which he balanced with his great interest in the works of Shakespeare and playing bridge.
Tchaikowsky harboured a life-long dream to be an actor, and posthumously joined one of the world’s most famous theatre companies when he bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It was to be used – so he hoped – in stagings of Hamlet. However, due to red tape regarding human remains, only a copy of Tchaikowsky’s skull had been used. His real debut came 17 years after his death in the hands of actor David Tennant, who agreed to hold the actual skull on stage in an RSC run of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s West End in 2009. The Royal Mail subsequently included a picture of Tennant holding Tchaikowsky’s skull aloft in a series of stamps celebrating the golden jubilee of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011.
Even though his music shows influences of composers like Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Alban Berg, the individuality of Tchaikowsky’s work lies in its duality, which constantly seems to juxtapose opposites. From his earliest works he claims certain colours and gestures, which he reiterates throughout his small, yet excellent oeuvre, developing each idea through every compositional mutation. His love for linear structures interweaves and contrasts through contrapuntal and fugal writing, and the harmonic density is passionately counteracted with argumentative expressions. His scores often include the indication pizzicato in the piano, an instruction usually reserved for string instruments. His melodic writing is often wound around certain harmonies, which make any leaps very surprising. Aggressive spiky chords are often contrasted with sections indicated as mesto (sad). The colour palette ranges from nebulous and stratospheric floating sounds to earthy feet-pounding and frustrated dissonant sound clusters.
A constant struggle – be it extrovert in exclamation, or brooding and introvert – is constantly present in his works. Life as expressed through his compositions is indeed a task. He worded this notion in his diary entry of 12 January 1980, referring to 'the daily task of being human'.
As a concert pianist, the recordings Tchaikowsky made for the RCA Victor label adds up to ten in total. As he was reluctant to perform his own compositions, commercial recordings of his own interpretations do not exist, and there are a limited number of other commercial recordings of his compositions on the market. This therefore makes the attention currently paid to his life and work even more justified.
A leading figure in the writing of the story of André Tchaikowsky is Dr Anastasia Belina-Johnson, Classical Pathway Leader at Leeds College of Music. Belina-Johnson draws on Tchaikowsky’s diaries and correspondence, as well as her own research conducted in Warsaw, in order to paint a clear portrait of not only the composer and concert pianist, but also the troubled existence and personal insecurities of the man behind the music.
On 1 November Leeds College of Music will present a symposium in which the legacy of André Tchaikowsky is established further. As a part of celebrating Tchaikowsky’s birthday, Belina-Johnson’s book, A Musician Divided: André Tchaikowsky in his own Words as well as a disc of some of Tchaikowsky’s piano music (published respectively by Toccata Press and Toccata Classics) will be launched on the day.
Mark Charles’ documentary André Tchaikowsky and The Merchant of Venice will be shown for the first time and director David Pountney will join a panel to discuss Tchaikowsky, his opera, and its Bregenz Festival premiere.
The whole André Tchaikowsky project will culminate in a recital at the end of the symposium. Renowned pianist Colin Stone will perform Inventions for solo piano. This set of works comprises of 10 miniatures (11 if you include the alternative version of the fifth Invention), and are all sketches of Tchaikowsky’s friends and colleagues.
Distinguished clarinettist Janet Hilton will perform the Arioso and Fuga for solo clarinet as well as the Clarinet Sonata, joined by Leeds College of Music lecturer and German pianist, Jakob Fichert. Before I perform the piano sonata of 1958, McCaldin and I will perform the Seven Shakespeare Sonnets. The recital is to be concluded by a performance of Tchaikowsky’s piano trio, Trio Notturno, to be performed by three Leeds College of Music lecturers: violinist Sebastian Müller, cellist Alfia Nakipbekova and myself.
The legacy of André Tchaikowsky symposium is presented by
Leeds College of Music on 1 November
Bösendorfer celebrates 185 years of piano making
25 October 2013
Austrian piano manufacturer Bösendorfer marked its 185th anniversary this week with the production of its 50,000th instrument.
At a press conference held at Vienna’s Musikverein, Brian Kemble, managing director for Bösendorfer spoke of the company’s continued commitment to craftsmanship on home soil. ‘We’re more Austrian than ever before; the entire manufacturing process takes place here – we have 114 staff in total – we have recently sourced an Austrian frame [for the pianos] and the rim of the soundboard is also Austrian spruce.’
The company was founded by Ignaz Bösendorfer in 1828 and its
instruments were inextricably linked to the Viennese style exemplified by
Mozart and Schubert. Following a period of ownership by BAWAG, Bösendorfer was
acquired by Yamaha in 2007. The Japanese owner demonstrated its dedication to
Austrian production by purchasing the – previously rented – premises and all
pianos continue to be made by hand in the Wiener Neustadt factory.
Several Bösendorfer artists were present at the conference, including long-standing collaborator Paul Badura-Skoda, who commented: ‘As a pianist I grew up with the Bösendorfer sound; it is not the loudest piano in the world but it has the most beautiful sound – especially when I play Schubert. For me it is the exact quality and precision. The sound quality has not changed – not louder or more sensational. The Bösendorfer sound does not develop as quickly from the hammer to the string, but it lasts a little longer especially in the higher register.’
The piano maker specialises in art cases that appeal to collectors. The 50,000th special edition model evokes the interior of the Musikverein, Vienna’s historic concert hall. Like the hall, the instrument is bedecked with gold leaf and caryatids – although the final effect is softly neo-classical, in stark contrast to the recent Bechstein ‘golden grand’ (‘The design to my taste was completely over the top’, remarks Kemble). The piano is a 225 model that sports four extra keys in the bass to contra F. On average a Bösendorfer takes a year to make and special models can take considerably longer. So ‘Opus No 50.000’ did not exactly roll off the production line. (In fact, Kemble reveals that it was only just completed in time for the launch).
One of Bösendorfer’s main challenges is to position itself against Steinway. The brand has found a dedicated ambassador in Valentina Lisitsa. The pianist, who has a dedicated army of online followers, has introduced a new audience to Bösendorfer and brings the instrument to international concert halls that might not usually favour the Austrian maker. The company now plans to take a more active role in competitions and institutions. ‘We are a boutique manufacturer and we don’t have plans to take over the piano world, but we do feel strongly there should be a diversity of sound,’ said Kemble. ‘We would like to expand, but small incremental growth’. Kemble did not provide a direct answer to questions on the company’s financial security, but did say the financial year-end summary looked ‘promising’.
Artists including Lisitsa and Badura-Skoda performed at a commemorative concert attended by Bösendorfer staff and dealers.