Pianos That I’ve Known and Loved
by Sara Faust
I’ve owned about 4,000 grand pianos in my lifetime and I remember nearly every one. I remember every piano on which I ever performed and almost all of the 1,000 plus vintage Steinway and Mason & Hamlin grands that my piano restoration factory has ever rebuilt. Each of these pianos is unique; some fit into certain categories quite well, others fit into no category at all. I’ve known Steinways that were Fazioli -like and Bosendorfers that were Mason & Hamlin-like; concert grands that were wimps and baby grands that were powerhouses. There’s a particular Bechstein and a certain Hamburg Steinway that resonate as one in my mind; they are so close in so many ways that I often confuse one for the other. But then there are some Bechsteins and Hamburgs that are so dissimilar that they could have come from different planets. So whatever I may say below about any brand or type of piano, please know that there are always exceptions.
My earliest memory of a “real” piano was an “Arthur Rubenstein” New York Steinway (that is, a Steinway from the prime-vintage period of the early to mid 1900’s), and for my entire youth, that was the standard against which I measured all other pianos. Words cannot adequately portray this type of instrument; the beauty and complexity defies description. But for me, it boiled down to just one word: soul - the more soul, the better. Performing was a way for me to touch the hearts of my audience, to make them feel what I was feeling. When the piano was a deep-soul, vintage-era Steinway, the tears flowed. For me, that was everything. It should be no surprise that my goal in rebuilding pianos has been to produce pianos that were not only technically and aesthetically perfect, but pianos that had soul.
In the early 1980’s, when I first started consulting for Mason & Hamlin, there were a lot of issues to discuss besides soul, but even back then, soul is what I wanted the Mason & Hamlin people to understand. As the old greatness of Mason & Hamlin began to re-emerge, first under the direction of Lloyd Meyer and then Kirk Burgett, as the technical issues were resolved and the company could concentrate on refinements of sound and touch, soul came back to the forefront. Sure, we spoke at length about clarity and color, delicacy and power, and every element in between, but the guiding light, at least for me, was always soul. To my delight, the new Mason & Hamlin pianos are as deeply soulful as the quintessential vintage Mason & Hamlins that were adored by Rubenstein and Rachmaninoff. I performed on one of these new Mason & Hamlins in New York a few years ago. Arthur Rubenstein’s daughters were both in the audience. Sure it was just the right piece played just the right way, but it was through the soul in that piano that I was able to touch them the way that I did. I will never forget the emotional connection that I made with them that night.
Then there are the European pianos. I had never been completely comfortable with the high-end European pianos, including those by Bechstein, Bosendorfer and Fazioli. To my ear, initially, these pianos lacked complexity, ‘orchestralness’ and soul, and they didn’t seem to have enough dynamic range. But some very accomplished pianists, whom I greatly respect, loved European pianos - as did some of my customers. So a number of years ago I decided to get to know these pianos better. I dispensed with my “Rubenstein” mindset and gave the pianos the opportunity to teach me what they are. And so I discovered Bechsteins. They were unlike any of the pianos on which I had learned, practiced and performed. They did their job wonderfully, and today there would be a void in my piano universe without them. I would miss the special clarity; a purity of sound that transforms Mozart into bell-like music of the type that I have now come to enjoy immensely. I would miss the distinctive tones that blend almost magically in a Bechstein so as to create delightfully surreal colors in the music of Debussy and delicate, yet substantial, textures and nuances that bring entirely new meaning to Beethoven.
And then came along the Yamaha “C-series” pianos. Almost overnight, these pianos become celebrated in the concert set, and are now must-see, must-play pianos for anyone evaluating great, high-end pianos. The durability, stability and reliability of a Yamaha C-series piano, combined with the sweet clarity and exquisite touch of a super-fine European piano, added to the richness and power of a great American grand, blended all very carefully. That’s what the new Yamaha concert pianos are to me.
My life is now a candy store of pianos. The top piano makers of the world are producing a wide variety of fabulous new instruments and my piano rebuilding factory continues to beautifully resurrect the legendary Steinways and Mason & Hamlins that were crafted in the heyday of great American piano making. The joy, but also the dismay of many of my customers, is that there are so many fine pianos from which to choose. I simply smile when a customer complains that on the one hand he loves a particular Steinway or Mason & Hamlin but on the other hand he also loves a completely different sounding Bechstein or Yamaha. This is when I am happy to mention that many of my customers only come to solve this dilemma by buying more than one piano.