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The Pleyel Piano: A Key to Genuine Chopin Sound?

Hubert Rutkowski’s new CD is a portrait not only of Chopin, but of the composer’s favourite instrument: Rutkowski plays a Pleyel piano from 1847. In his search for a genuine Chopin/Pleyel sound he has also turned to historical recordings of Raul Koczalski and Moritz Rosenthal, students of Karol Mikuli, who was in turn a student of Chopin himself.

Chopin’s own Pleyel piano from 1848

Songful and spontaneous

The album offers a well-rounded view of Chopin the lyricist, and the selection of pieces presents the whole spectrum of sound possibilities available to the Pleyel. The piano has a songful tone, but without the density and weight of a modern instrument, which allows you to hear all the different layers of sound very clearly. Rutkowski also manages to create a big sound in the G minor ballade, but in the coda it’s clear that the Pleyel is approaching the limit of what it can convey in terms of power.

In spite of the great focus on history, there is a sense of fresh spontaneity in Rutkowski’s performances. From his early-20th century role models he has picked up a special sense of freedom, and a rubato that can be surprising to modern ears, accustomed to 21st century ‘standard Chopin playing’. So, is this the only true and genuine Chopin? Well, we might want to look at different portrait pictures of Chopin to get a sense of what he really looked like. In much the same way, historically informed performances like these can certainly give us a more nuanced picture.

Chopin Ballade no 1 – Piano score to download and print:

A highly sensitive instrument

The Pleyel has a so-called single escapement — a type of action which is less flexible than modern ones, but which at the same time offers a greater feeling of touch control. Rutkowski, in his detailed liner notes, agrees with Chopin that to play legato and with a singing tone on the Pleyel “is quite a challenge for the pianist. This instrument is highly sensitive to the smallest detail […] one might get the impression of a direct contact with the strings.”

From a modern perspective one is easily tempted to view the evolution of the piano in the 19th century as the steady progress towards the modern Steinway. Of course, romantic composers didn’t see it that way. Each of the major piano makes that existed in Chopin’s time had its distinct qualities, which could be used for different musical purposes. Chopin himself used to say:

“When i feel out of sorts, I play on an Érard piano where I easily find a ready-made tone. But when I feel in good form, and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.”

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Album content

(Click the links for piano sheet music to download and print.)

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Mazurka No. 2 in C Major, Op. 24
Étude No. 5 in G-Flat Major, Op. 10
Nocturne No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 48
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66
Mazurka No. 4 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 24
Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20
Mazurka No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 7
Nocturne No. 1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 27
Polonaise in B-Flat Major, Op. 71
Mazurka No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 68
Waltz No. 1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 64


Pleyel Turns the Last Page?

A Pleyel was Chopin’s favorite piano; he once said, “when I’m feeling energetic and strong enough to find my own sound, I need a Pleyel piano.” Ignaz Pleyel, a student, friend and confidant of Franz Josef Haydn, began producing pianos in 1807. His innovations include the first upright pianos in France, the “sustained” sound and metallic frames. In addition to Chopin, such luminaries as Stravinsky, Debussy, Saint-SaĂ«ns, Ravel, Liszt and Grieg made Pleyel pianos their darlings too. Watch pianist Janina Fialkowska introduce and play a 1848 Pleyel grand piano:

Pleyel closing the Saint-Denis Workshop

After more than 200 years producing 250,000 of the highest-quality pianos in the French tradition, Pleyel will be closing the doors of its one remaining factory. Undercut by “business is war” tactics from Asian piano makers, Pleyel’s insistence on producing hand-crafted, tailor-made works of art instead of mass-produced models failed. The company’s spokesman and manufacturing head, Bernard Roques, announced the closure of the Saint-Denis location and cited “recurrent losses and a very weak level of activity.”

Located just outside of Paris, it opened its doors in 1865. Ever since then, according to deputy head of the workshop Fabrice Perret, it has produced the “Ferrari of the piano world.” Each Pleyel piano is lovingly crafted of more than 5,000 parts and requires 1,500 or more man-hours to build. Perret lamented the demise of both the shop and the company as he knows them and wistfully stated that they used to deliver to the yachts of Arab emirates and other far-flung places, such as Australia. Pianists the world over gave in to the lure of low-priced pianos from Chinese and Korean manufacturers rather than the timeless craftsmanship of Pleyel, which, as a result, sold only 20 pianos last year.

Reactions From the Musical World

Pianists from all countries have noted that, despite the bargain-basement prices, Asian piano makers have improved the quality of their instruments over the last few years. Realizing this, the head of the musical conservatoire in Paris, Françoise LevĂ©chin, was nevertheless stupefied by the development. She stated: “It’s unthinkable that it can’t be supported, that this very old house which is a great French maker and is part of piano history cannot be saved.” In a cruel twist, the Pleyel factory succumbed to business pressures on the eve of a 380-million euro bailout plan from the French government designed to prevent closures of this type.

French Job Losses Make it Tough All Over

In addition to the 14 employees of Pleyel’s Saint-Denis factory, tens of thousands of other French workers stand to lose their jobs in the coming months. Industrial Recovery Minister Arnaud Montebourg hopes the bailout package will keep struggling companies viable and on the path to prosperity. It’s a shame that the bailout came too late to save Pleyel.

Strategies to Adopt to the New Global Piano Market

The company is looking, however, for alternative options. Roques hopes to collaborate with a prominent musician or find a smaller space to produce a few high-end pianos annually. The head of competing piano manufacturer Colmann-France Pianos, Oliver Colin, says Roques has missed the bus and has no hope. Colin’s company (on the market since 2004) has expanded its production into China and avoided the higher costs of European workers and their living wages. Colin claims to have used China intelligently and kept French traditions alive. He is banking on new technologies, such as grand pianos that play themselves or pianos outfitted with headphones that will be silent when the headphones are plugged in, in order to survive in the cutthroat world of piano making.

Interestingly, in the face of Asian competition, whose mass-produced, middle-of-the-road pianos are of increasing quality, piano makers all over Europe, including L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik GmbH, say they must shift into the high-end market to survive. Given what has happened to Pleyel, this seems to be a risky strategy.


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