Sad news this week that Steinway Pianos is to be sold to a private equity company. What does this mean for pianists? On the face of it, nothing; it’s just a change of owner for the firm. But a friend writes from New York that the Steinway showroom on Manhattan’s 57th Street is closing down, and there have been other signs that the demand for high-quality grand pianos is fading – in the West at least. The desire to have a quality grand in your home seems to have swung to China, where music conservatoires have taken delivery of large numbers of new ‘traditional’ pianos.
Announcing the sale of Steinway to Kohlberg and Co, the Guardian website illustrated its article with a photo of John Lennon and the explanation that Steinway was the firm which manufactured the piano on which John Lennon wrote and recorded ‘Imagine’.
As an Elizabethan might have said, ” ‘Tis come to this.”
For most classical musicians, Steinway Pianos are associated with great pianists of the past such as Rachmaninov, Rubinstein and Horowitz. Even today the Steinway is the pre-eminent piano, the one you’d expect to find in leading concert halls, the one you hope to have when you make a record. It’s the one you can expect to see this summer in most of the Proms concerts featuring a piano. There are rival pianos made to different ‘recipes’ and marketed more aggressively, but although I’ve admired some of them and enjoyed playing them for particular repertoire, I’d say the Steinway has been the most consistent in terms of quality. My own piano is a Steinway from the 1960s. I can never change it because I had to demolish half the front of the living-room to get it into the house in 1988. If I ever move out I might try the reverse process and have the Steinway dis-assembled and taken out in little bits like London Bridge when it was moved to Arizona.
I would better understand the use of John Lennon to illustrate the significance of Steinway if Lennon had been a virtuoso pianist. As it is, the piano part of ‘Imagine’ is a simple affair. It’s a nice song, but Lennon’s playing does not even begin to conjure the sound that skilled pianists of the past and present can draw from a Steinway.