Friday, September 21, 2018


It is said that people who can play Steinways can't afford Steinways. And vice versa.

I got my Yamaha from a woman who was making room for her new 160 thousand dollar Bosendorfer so people could play it at her parties. She did not want to be soiled with a 20 thousand dollar piano for the background music her hired pianists would play for her guests to talk over. She didn't play herself, of course. Perish the thought!

Persons who play other instruments occasionally have this problem as well. The great violinists of the world never own their instrument. Even though they make a good living, it is not enough to lay out several million dollars for a Stradivarius. So they get it loaned to them by a foundation.

The rest of us bozos get by on loaned instruments as well. I have a piano at home which is not concert worthy, but it helps me practice. I can't make good recordings on it, though. Most of the things you hear on pianonoise were made on Steinways that I had regular access to for some reason, such as having a position at a church, or for a recital.

Which is why, after some bit of exile, I should be in the driver's seat again. I am teaching a course about Mozart next month and wanted to finally get around to recording some of the sonatas, only to bump up against the latest hurdle: the piano is out of tune.

I don't mean just a little bit, either. I'm talking "church basement" out of tune.

Most churches in Pittsburgh have a piano, but only as an afterthought. Nobody plays it. We are an organ only town. And while Third Presbyterian has a nice Steinway model A which dates to 1929 (good year!) it is not particularly good at holding its tune.

We've been working on that in the year since I arrived. The massive fluctuations of temperature and humidity in a very large, non-airconditioned sanctuary in the middle of a humid, river-bounded town have to be contained. We've added a cover for the piano. We are set to install a damp chaser under the piano to keep the sound board at a consistent humidity--when the technician gets to it. Then, in a few weeks, he'll tune the piano, once the instrument has made the adjustment.

I got tired of waiting. One day, seated at the organ, I committed sacrilege by playing one of the Mozart sonatas on the organ. Then another. Then another. After a quarter century I can still remember large chunks of them without the score. I decided I liked the sound. After all, it may be an Allen, but it has a very large sound library of famous organ builder-generated sounds, and the charm of some of the registrations I was coming up with seemed to justify the experiment. So I recorded a few. I haven't had a chance to post any yet because I am in the middle of a busy week, so you'll get to hear them later.

They're not historically authentic, of course. Mozart didn't have a large, English cathedral style organ, or a French Cavaille Coll with hundreds of stops. And he did specify piano for these pieces.

But I think this may be sweet revenge for the organ. After all, Mozart was a great publicity man: he said that, to his "eyes and ears, the organ is the king of instruments." We organists like to trot out that quote every so often. But he didn't actually write anything for solo organ. Not a thing.

So maybe this is justice. It is a bit odd for a pianist to play an organ transcription of something he could just as well play on a piano, though. It is one thing when a beleaguered bassoonist steals something written for the violin in order to have some good literature to play on his neglected instrument.

The organ versions of these pieces do provide an interesting way to listen, however. Any great piece of music has many layers. Sometimes the best way to uncover some of them is to alter the medium. It causes us to hear differently. This doesn't mean I'm playing them the right way. There isn't a right way.

Arthur Schnabel said he wanted to play pieces that were impossible to play as well as they were written.

Anyhow, I've had to deal with some lemons in my career as a pianist and this week I found an unusual way to make some lemonade. I didn't squeeze all the juice out of the sonatas: you never can. But It yielded some intriguing results.

Apparently somebody else complained about the piano this week from an outside group, so we are having it tuned today. Maybe I acted impatiently. Good thing.

As always, is up with new recordings an articles if you want to explore the world of music.

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