Ravel Compared on Two Fine Grand Pianos

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ravel 1928 w. Gershwinsteinway d pianoerard pianoref=sr_1_1We had a piano in our home when I was growing up, a nice Chickering quarter grand.  It was given to my teenage father after his recital by a rich lady who was impressed by his budding talent.  My father would play it to relax before dinner, with a few double scotches fueling his inspiration.  It was cocktail style piano.   We sold it for a song after my parents passed away.

Most pianists can’t choose the instruments they play on publicly, unless they’re a Keith Jarrett or a Lang Lang.  Jazz pianists play on whatever is in the club,  a beat-up upright or whatever.  Some lucky artists get sponsors:  Cecil Taylor gets a Bösendorfer, Ahmad Jamal gets a Steinway.  Herbie Hancock plays an Italian piano, a Fazioli.  The great Russian pianists who remained in the U.S.S.R. played Petrof’s.   Dino Lipatti, the Roumanian Chopin virtuoso, played a Bechstein.  I think Keith Jarrett prefers a Hamburg Steinway, though he recorded one ECM album on his home practice Steinway.  It was a very personal album, and I appreciated the lack of grunting for once.

Once, at Catalina’s in Hollywood, I watched Cecil Taylor’s musical pyrotechnics from the suicide seat in front while enjoying a steak dinner.   A friend of mine had a beautiful old Érard grand in his then-current home, a gondola warehouse in Venice.  The piano had seen better days and could have used an overhaul, but the inlays and parquetry were gorgeous.

A new cd has just been released on Channel Classics that compares a modern Steinway with a classic French Érard grand.  The Érard has a mostly wooden frame, the Steinway a metal one.  The French piano has a softer sound, more dampened, with less decay after the notes are played.  The Steinway has a more brilliant tone, a tad more projection,  and sounds more suited for dynamics.  The two-cd set (SACD) features classic works of Maurice Ravel in mirrored versions:  The same Ravel program on cd 1 features the Érard, cd 2 the Steinway.  Ravel had an Érard in his home,  but played Steinways in concert (in the photo above he’s in New York in 1928, with George Gershwin on the right).   Debussy, Lizst, and Fauré’ also used Érards.  The French piano had eclipsed the other big French manufacturer, Pleyel, by the introduction of the “double escape mechanism”, which in effect created the first modern piano.  Érard also innovated modern French concert harps that Lyon & Healy manufacture today.

I had a mean piano teacher who, far from inspiring me to learn and practice, drove me away from the piano.  I wish I could have had a hipper, cooler teacher….the piano is the only instrument that has endless combinations of color, tone, dynamics, and harmonic possibilities.

The new cd is unusual and interesting, the first one of its kind, so I wanted to write about it.