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A Tonal Journey

Sally Phillips (Spring 2022)


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These recordings, all posted on YouTube, demonstrate the tonal journey that New York and Hamburg Steinways have made from between the World Wars to the present day. To hear the subtle differences in tone, you’ll need high-quality speakers or headphones.

These pre–World War II recordings portray a Steinway sound that is sweeter and, while clean in the attack, lacks the power of mid-century and later Steinways. Edwin Fischer plays J.S. Bach’s Concerto in A Major, in 1936.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR8oh_mirdY

Edwin Fischer plays Beethoven’s Sonata No.31 in A-flat Major, Op.110, in 1938.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYZsGmiwvSI

The postwar tonal gulf between European and American Steinways is already audible in a 1949 recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 on a New York Steinway at the Hollywood Bowl. Horowitz artfully pushes the piano to its tonal and physical limits.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndr5NzIe7lY

By 1947, New York Steinways were getting bigger in volume, tone, and projection. Here, at Carnegie Hall, Arthur Rubinstein makes short work of Chopin’s Polonaise Op.53 (“Heroic”) and De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUoXKYT_rC8

Compare that with Rubinstein’s 1966 Warsaw performance on a Hamburg Steinway, in which he’s absorbed in the minutiae of highlighting and contrasting each beautiful voice and line. He uses the articulated warmer tenor area to a great extent in Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D.960, and in Schumann’s Carnaval, Op.9.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLTM-Y3dXs4

The differences in these pianists’ approaches notwithstanding, the synergy between pianist and piano maker that has existed since the 18th century, shaping the history of the piano and its tone, continues today. Piano makers try to realize the artistic desires of musicians, who must adapt to and create within the capabilities of the instruments they are given.

The next two recordings of New York Steinways are from the mid-20th century, with the “big-orchestra piano” tone mentioned in the main article. Notes explode off the strings in the big passages, but still have a bell-like tone in softer passages:

Leon Fleisher, in 1958, performs Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op.24: Fugue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCAwj9qIQGY

Gary Graffman, in 1964, plays Rachmaninoff’s Preludes in G Minor, Op.23 No.5, and G-sharp Minor, Op.32 No.12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDlzIiG4SSE

Two recent recordings show the current similarities in tonal approach between Hamburg and New York Steinways:

Henry Kramer, 2021, Hamburg Steinway: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op.58. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-nuMzFhUCM

Wei Luo, 2021, New York Steinway: Rachmaninoff, Vocalise, Op.34 No.14.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AXqgX6j678

Here is a great example of using a piano’s length of sustain to create the singing tone found in new Steinway pianos:

Lang Lang: Debussy, Reverie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouYT5OEPfRI&list=PLSk8EVh3VMhC2sOe62zJsJmhn04X98mPS&index=9

These current videos from Steinway feature sound that is very representative of the sound of pianos now made in both factories.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSk8EVh3VMhC2sOe62zJsJmhn04X98mPS

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Over the past 46 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry: service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has prepared instruments for concert and recording work in many of the world’s top concert venues and for some of the world’s most prestigious symphony orchestras. Phillips also works with many institutional clients, and has started an apprenticeship program for piano technicians. Her team of experienced technicians who have completed the program now services the pianos at four university music programs, tuning for over 450 concerts a year. Phillips lives in Georgia and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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