IS OLDER BETTER? Archeologists, antique dealers, and even aging writers will tell you so. And many pianists agree, especially when one finds a certain special instrument with which he or she can form the musical partnership of a lifetime. But even legendary wines can turn to vinegar. So when dealing with the acquisition—or restoration—of a vintage piano, it's important to get the advice of experts.
There are reasons to favor an older instrument over a new one, and one of the strongest is purely sentimental. "To the extent this was grandma's piano, there is a certain attraction," says Bill Youse, who heads Steinway & Sons' restoration center in Long Island City, New York. "We've had people come in and cry at seeing their restored pianos. One time we asked a technician to play something on it as the customer entered the room to see the results, and she nearly fainted. It turned out that the piece he was playing was the one her husband had last played on the instrument before he passed away. The coincidence was amazing. But the point is, when you bring a piano back to life, you get the family history, the love, the memories. You can't get that with a new instrument."
It's also rare to get the sound in new pianos that vintage instruments produce, say Sara and Irving Faust, of Faust Harrison Pianos in New York City, a dealership renowned for high-level restorations. "The old Steinways, produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, have never been surpassed," says Sara. "They have warmth, soul, what I would call a sort of 'three-dimensionality' and color in the sound that you can't find in a modern instrument. And each era seems to have its own special quality. Starting in the 1920s, the Steinway sound became more extroverted. Steinways of the 1940s are both lush and bold. Most importantly, in the hands of a top piano restorer the special rich, mellow, colorful tones of the older instruments are retained. They may look, feel, and smell like new pianos, but they sound like wonderful old pianos.
"You have to have a very large sample to appreciate this fully," Faust continues. "I'm making these judgments based on working with thousands of pianos." The exact reasons why the old Steinways sound different from today's instruments remain a mystery; one theory attributes it to changes in the manufacture of the cast-iron plate that sits at the heart of the instrument.
At Cunningham Piano Co. in Philadelphia, founded in 1891, co-owner Rich Galassini agrees that there are differences among Steinway pianos made at different times. "The final product depends on choices made in materials, design, and the execution of these designs in manufacturing. Any change, intentional or unintentional, in any of these categories will result in a difference in performance.
SPRING 2010 -- page 68
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Hybrid & Player Pianos