More piano hyperbole

While I am all for imagination and progress in the design and construction of musical instruments, I’m always skeptical when articles use epithets like”unique,” “never before seen,” or “redefining.”

The world of pianos has experienced continual development since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented his cimbalo di piano e forte around 1700. The 20th and 21st centuries have proven no less innovative than the 18th and 19th, despite the apparent superficial standardization of the last 100 years or so. Even the venerable institution of Steinway & Sons is constantly refining the subtle minutiae of design in frame, soundboard, and action, and every Steinway piano has its own personality that can be discerned by an astute player.

Add to that the continuous invention of more extreme design elements, from alternative keyboard layouts to experimental aerodynamic cases that modern designers like to present to the world as the Next Generation Piano. The most visible example probably being the Schimmel Pegasus created in the late 1990s by designer Luigi Colani. The Pegasus is an ultramodern design on all levels, not just the most obvious curvilinear case.

More recently a similarly liquid form was presented in Budapest by maker Gergely Bogányi touted as the “first major redesign of a piano seen in over 100 years,” which is an absurd statement that I think only takes away from the interesting aspects of the instrument.

The latest entry into the world of hyperbolic piano marketing is no less than stellar pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Despite numerous statements about how his new piano design harkens back to the earlier days of the fortepiano’s evolution from the harpsichord, Barenboim’s piano is described as “radical.” If anything, it’s the antithesis of radical. It seems more of a traditional approach, using modern technology to reverse the earlier innovation of crossing the strings on the lower end, which was done primarily to prevent the instrument from being too long, but also has the effect of blending the tone is a way that has become the sound one expects from a piano. Barenboim’s design concept is simply to uncross the piano harp in order to undo the blending and to yield a clearer tone on the bottom end. A perfectly reasonable idea as long as this doesn’t result in a piano that’s 10 feet long or more. The articles about the Barenboim instrument do not go into technical details. It was built by Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene under the auspices of Steinway.

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