Palatino USA"But I wouldn't single out just one brand," adds Galassini. "There are a number of beautifully made instruments that historically have had their own voice and, restored, have wonderful performance potential." Galassini would include in this list such venerable brands as Mason & Hamlin, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, and Bechstein, as well as the slightly lesser-known Chickering and Knabe, among others. "There is a very wide palette of tone and touch available to a pianist who wishes to seek out an older instrument that speaks to him or her personally."

Steinway's Bill Youse has a some-what different perspective. There may be differences in quality between older instruments and today's, he says, but it's difficult to render an opinion because, "by the time I get them, they are in demise." More likely, the perceived differences have to do with changing aesthetics, he adds: "The tonal requirements today—the sounds people are looking for—are different than they were years ago. Today we juice the hammers to produce a brighter sound. We tune at a higher pitch. Sometimes it's too harsh for my senses. I like pianos voiced in a mellow way. But the entire piano industry has developed that trend toward brightness."

Perhaps because of these different outlooks, the three firms have different approaches to restoration. "We replace rather than repair," reports Youse. "We retain original parts only in a museum-type restoration, as we did for the White House piano, and the 'Peace Piano'—the one with gold stars all around that had been in Congress and that now resides at the Smithsonian Institution. When we worked on the 'King of Sweden' piano, which arrived with envoys and armed guards, we of course had to use the original types of glue and varnish. But in most cases, we believe that newer is better.

"There is a perception that the old craftsmen did it better," Youse continues. "Yet the materials we use, and the ways we have of testing things, have gotten better. We replace hardware, to avoid sympathetic vibrations that develop as things wear. The modern action is an improvement over older ones. And our wood technologist tells me that after about 60 years the cellular structure of spruce breaks down, and the soundboard just won't have the same resilience. The newer ones are superior."

At Faust Harrison Pianos, standardizing parts is not always considered the right way to go. Indeed, their technicians often mix replacement parts—combining elements of Renner and Steinway, for example—to achieve the desired results. Rather than replacing items wholesale, they may design individual solutions for each area of the instrument being serviced, in order to accommodate the original dimensions and materials, or to maintain the look of an earlier design.

Cunningham, too, takes a more customized approach to restoration. "All manufacturers change the design of their pianos over time," says Galassini, "in part to improve their instruments, but also in an attempt to appeal to the fashionable tone of the time." Because of this, rebuilders must decide if they wish to be faithful to the originally intended design, or if they wish to make the piano sound more modern. "For instance," says Galassini, "a well-educated rebuilder, if he wanted to, could reproduce the tone and touch of the Mason & Hamlin that so moved Ravel."


SPRING 2010 -- page 69

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