‘I don’t hear anything’

1st June 2009 | Concerts, Musings | 0 comments

Today I’ve been rehearsing a quintet for piano and strings with some very fine players using some very fine old Italian string instruments. I’m never sure if it’s good to say who owns what, so I’ll just say that these top-league instruments sounded incredible. One of my colleagues said that when she acquired hers, she felt as if she were learning the repertoire all over again because the instrument itself seemed to suggest so many new possibilities.

I know it’s a fallacy to speak as if the instruments ‘sound’ all by themselves. Fritz Kreisler once responded to being told that his violin sounded amazing by looking ‘puzzled’, holding  the violin to his ear, pretending to listen and then saying, ‘I don’t hear anything.’  Brusque but effective! Let’s not forget it’s the player who makes the sound, and a really good player can sound convincing on practically any instrument. That’s not to say they won’t sound their best on a world-class instrument.

When I find myself in the company of exceptional old string instruments, I can’t help feeling sad that there’s nothing quite equivalent for pianists. With pianos it is almost the other way round: the best ones are the newest. Steinway’s concert fleet consists of pianos less than ten years old. Of course a lot can be done to maintain and renovate the tone of an older piano, but generally speaking pianos deteriorate as time goes on. There’s no equivalent of a Stradivarius violin which has only now reached the peak of its powers after several hundred years. If you were to take a keyboard instrument made in the same year as a Strad, first of all, it would be a wreck by now, and secondly, it would be a harpsichord. Keyboard instruments have changed and developed enormously, whereas violins, violas and cellos are much as they were, give or take a few modifications. String players know that these actual instruments have been played, admired and loved since the 17th or 18th century. If a pianist is particularly fond of an old piano, however, it’s usually for reasons other than the sheer glory of its tone.

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