Even though Steinway pianos are perceived as ideal for performing Beethoven’s piano works, is the “Viennese Upstart” piano maker more suited for the maestro’s piano works?
By: Ringo Bones
Bösendorfer should probably be thankful to Tori Amos who single handedly telling people who don’t normally listen to Western European Classical Music that their famed pianos exist back in the early 1990s. And even though Steinway & Sons the preferred pianos for performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano works after World War II and during the Golden Age of Stereo already had a New York Mercantile Exchange listing as LVB – stands for Ludwig van Beethoven’s initials – are Steinways the still preferred pianos for Beethoven’s piano works given that since the 1990s, Bösendorfers are gaining acceptance and even preference as the ideal platform for Beethoven?
Founded by Ignaz Bösendorfer in Vienna, Austria – though now owned by the piano making arm of Yamaha – back in 1828, Bösendorfer pianos are relatively unknown outside of the German or even the Western European Classical Music scene prior to its popularization by Tori Amos during the early 1990s. According to Western Classical Music piano players, piano technicians and concertgoers, a typical Bösendorfer piano sounds darker but less full bodied when compared to other more traditionally preferred pianos used in performing Western Classical Music – like Steinway & Sons.
But in actual listening and according to top contemporary piano technician David Lander – Asian pianos (at least to my ears those found in bars in British colonial period Singapore or Hong Kong or the then country of Malaysia and Indonesia before the Imperial era Japanese invasion of World War II) tend to emphasize the same high frequencies heard in folk music of that part of the world, European pianos tend to be melodic and lyrical while a lot of American pianos have a lot of dynamic power. Sadly, almost all Steinway piano set-ups here in South East Asia used whenever an American or European Classical Music pianist performing Beethoven tends to sound of too much felt in the hammers and as if on anti manic depression medication due to its restrained dynamics despite being unadorned by PA system electronic amplification.
A typical piano has 88 keys a Bösendorfer Model 225 has 92 keys – all of the extra keys are all located in the bass end of the keyboard. They were originally hidden beneath a hinged panel mounted between the piano’s conventional low A – at 27.5Hz and the lowest note on a typical 88-keyed piano – at the left hand end cheek to prevent them being struck accidentally during normal playing. The lowest note on a 92-keyed Bösendorfer Model 225 is an F at a frequency of 21.827Hz.
Under Yamaha’s administration, the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Model 290 has 97 keys that enabled it to reach the 16.325Hz low C note often found in full-sized pipe organs equipped with a 32-foot pipe. This Bösendorfer piano model was originally custom built for Ferrucio Busoni who wanted to transcribe an organ piece that went to the low C below the 27.5Hz low A of a standard 88-key piano keyboard.
Pop/rock musician Tori Amos popularized Bösendorfer Imperial Grand pianos and their famed low end frequency reach on her single Precious Things to her fans who a significant portion of them probably are still oblivious of the existence of Western Classical Music. And back in 2001, Canadian Classical pianist Robert Silverman chose to record with a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Model 290 SE instead of a traditionally preferred Steinway piano when he recorded his Beethoven piano works for Stereophile’s John Atkinson.