Piano Street Magazine

Piano Vintage – Italian Excellence Bringing Old Steinways Back to Life

March 4th, 2014 in Articles by | 3 comments

One of the most interesting exhibitors at the Cremonafiere Exhibition’s piano part – the so called CremonaPianoforte – this fall was a company and workshop called Piano Vintage. The company performs a type of restoration dictated from the work philosophy and experience of the “Steinway Academy”. The instruments on display at the Cremona exhibition were vintage Steinway grand pianos carefully restored into its original state maintaining the unique identity of each instrument. This is achieved by applying particular techniques that diversify and characterize each sound board according to its original type.

The greatest risk for a restorer is to insist on a certain type of sound quality result for the project on hand, but which is completely alien to the core identity of the instrument. Therefor Piano Vintage’s work consists in understanding the constructive details and the logic of every minute step towards a precise expressive sound finale. Being able to renew the original
sound with innovated techniques aimed at giving back its internal energy, Piano Vintage is able to bring back life to old Steinways while insuring a quality that meets the most demanding expectations.

Interview with Andrea De Biasi

Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell had a chance to talk to Andrea De Biasi, who is heading the workshop located in Pescatina in the Italian Verona province.

Patrick Jovell: It has been very interesting and inspiring hearing a large number of accomplished pianists trying your restored Steinway pianos during the exhibition. My spontaneous reaction is the freshness of sound as well as the balanced sonority character. How did the project and specifically the collaboration with the vintage Steinway instruments start?

Andrea De Biasi: The Piano Vintage project wasn’t born from restoring Steinway pianos, built in particular periods, but it is a necessary consequence determined by the level of deterioration of the original sound performance. I will explain myself better: because of its structural system and mechanical strength, in relation to one another, a piano is destined to lose its original sonority over a period of 30 to 50 years. Practically speaking, in as much as we are able to put an instrument in conditions, favorable for its perfect preservation, the sound that is generated from the soundboard undergoes an evolution with time. It manifest initially with loss of freshness and energy of the sound force, finding a balance and a good natured sound in its mid-life, but with an energetic load that gradually depletes, resulting in the end in a rigid sound and a loss of character. Naturally this evolution doesn’t take into consideration the deterioration of the materials, the unfavorable environment and the mechanical parts that generate the sound input and are a disturbance in the sound perception of the soundboard.

PJ: I would like to ask you about your clients. Who is asking for your services?

ADB: For Piano Vintage, with a new soundboard built on the original one, the market is in evolution because in Europe there are truly very few laboratories that take on work of this kind and in Italy we are the only one. As regards ordinary restoration, our clients are pianists who want to recuperate, in the best way possible, the sound of the piano in order to have an instrument capable of top class performances such as with brand new instruments. I would say even better from certain points of view, because the Vintage restoration is certainly that of exclusive, non-standardized, high-performing instruments.

PJ: Which are the reactions from professional pianists trying restored Steinway pianos?

ADB: The first reaction is astonishment when the year of conservation is revealed to them because pianists do not notice the age of the piano due to the freshness of its sound. At the same time they are fascinated by the beauty of the sound that has an image and imprint clearly different from new Steinway pianos, but at the same time very similar. For us, here at Piano Vintage, this certainly confirms our objective from which our work originates.

PJ: The domination of modern Steinway instruments today works as a sort of hallmark for how concert grand pianos should sound. What has happened to the Steinway sound during the last 100 years from your point of view?

ADB: Steinway is the inventor of the modern piano and his project was the result of an intuition, talent and musical sensibility abreast of the times but already projected into the future. Everyone knows the famous collaboration between the great pianists of the past and the house of Steinway, always attentive to technical interpretative developments of the pianist. From our point of view, and we are not alone, the Steinway sound is standardized at ever increasing levels of excellence but at the same time the instruments are homogenized. From the perception point of view they seem to be pianos very similar and the most beautiful or special is more difficult to identify. This factor is certainly positive from a business point of view and it is the result of the productive Steinway system, still handcrafted, but an industrial craftsmanship that uses technology in certain phases where it was once the work of expert craftsmen. In particular for the construction and assembly of soundboards, jumper wires and cast iron frame made by numerical controlled machines that are capable of improving with special software the construction parts beginning from the measurements and sounding echo, of the initial constructive elements – shaft and cast iron frame.

From my own personal point of view a piece of humanity was taken in the constructive phase that determined the difference of one instrument from another favoring a majority precision that excludes however the natural intuition for solutions that is man’s prerogative.

PJ: There has always existed a firm bond between the development of instruments and how pianists play them. Pianists 100 years ago did not play the piano in the same way pianists do today. Does this affect your work? I mean, you are actually recreating instruments for living pianists and not the dead.

ADB: We merely attempt to enhance the sound that these instruments, built in the past, already possess because we are convinced that if we offer pianists the possibility of playing instruments unlike those of today can be a stimulation for an interpretative experience and research with different horizons and maybe even more stimulating.

PJ: When you are restoring Steinway concert pianos, do you have to take acoustical questions into consideration? Concert halls today require a different set-up when it comes to overall sound production?

ADB: In reality it’s not the environment or the eventual use that influence the restoration process, even though it is taken into consideration. It is the personality and the characteristic sound of the piano that have to be enhanced . It would be risky restoring a piano that would play better only in a certain environment or lose its identity. The restoration process is always guided by the instrument itself, step by step using carefully selected materials and optimized in the best way possible. We have learned the following at the Steinway Academy: an obsessive attention to detail linked with a determined constructive method leads to the realization of the best sound possible for that instrument and not the best sound that we imagine because that doesn’t exist and above all each pianist has his own ideal sound that is the result of his cultural baggage of artistic and technical studies not to mention his talent and individual sensitivity.

PJ: Your work tickles our imagination and there is a feeling of entering a time machine when playing your instruments. What can we – as pianists – learn from playing restored instruments?

ADB: I believe that it will be the Vintage restored piano itself that will guide the pianists on this journey in time and past sound and what they will learn will be their own personal discover as if on a journey in a country never visited before.

We would like to offer this opportunity to make an ancient sound trip but which is actually in the present.

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  • Ronnie says:

    Hey Patrick–very nice interview. Restoring Steinways sounds like it’s a lot of work for Piano Vintage, but certainly worth the time invested.

  • Hello,
    I totally disagree with the statements made in the article. The only people who say soundboards deteriorate are the ones who want to make big money replacing soundboards. Soundboards actually get better with age, its the hammers and strings that get tired and worn out. Everybody glows over a Strad thats old, but a piano that is just 30years old they want to rip out. The biggest reason the older pianos sounded so good in the first place was because of the better materials used, such as close grained Adirondack Spruce. And today they want to replace that with a heavier and mushy Sitka Spruce. I had in my shop last month a 150 year old German upright piano(1859) it had cracks in the soundboard (no buzzing ribs) and hammers that had been put on about 20 years ago, and I’ll tell you that piano sings and is a joy to play.
    There has been many cases of Tech’s ripping out a board (that didn’t need it) and put in a new one, only for it to sound worse. It really is important these days to be honest with potential clients and do only what is necessary to bring back the fullness and beauty of the tone of their instrument. Usually that is minor repairs, replacing the strings, new hammers, regulating, and voicing..

  • steinberg09 says:

    Hello Chris,

    When in your opinion is it time to renew hammers? Is it just a question of how worn they look as well as the sound becoming thinner in part? I have a 1906 Bluether Aliquot – always loved the sound, but it has got a little thin in the treble. Hammers were shaved back 20 years ago. I was unable to play it the last 5 years but now am back and feel unsure about making any such alterations because I still like its original sound so much. A tech I got here said its time to renew the hammers and strings. In the last week it started to sound better to me, but I wonder how much I have simply adjusted my playing to the quirks of the worn hammers.

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