Hamburger Ensemble

For some years now the Australia Ensemble has had a Stuart piano.

The Stuart piano is made by Wayne Stuart up at Newcastle (Australia). It purports to incorporate various technical innovations, and in particular a clearer sound and less murky harmonics.

It has been a quixotic point of resistance against the growing monoculture in concert grand pianos as a result of the hegemony of Steinway at the expense of other brands such as Bösendorfer or Bechstein. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that there is a triopoly: Kawai and Yamaha hold some ground, but one suspects this is principally a question of price rather than any great differentiations in the sound and design of the piano.

I have played a Stuart piano once. It is hard to say much on such a limited experience, but my first feeling was that it was a difficult bugger to play, if only because it was different. Ian Munro, the pianist in the Australia Ensemble, has had more time to get used to it, but my guess is that he may still have been left cursing under his breath from time to time, especially if he was playing something where our aesthetic expectations are already Steinway pre-determined.

I have heard the Stuart piano on numerous occasions over the past few years. There are times when I miss the consistent and big creamy sound of a Steinway, expecially for late Romantic repertoire, but I have always appreciated the Stuart because of its distinctiveness, as well as its less overbearing sound in ensemble. I definitely prefer it in, say, Beethoven, Schubert, and even Schumann and Brahms.

Last year we were told that the Stuart piano was reaching the end of its useful concert life. This seems surprising because it is not as if the piano has had a punishing concert schedule. On the other hand because of its distinctiveness pianists have probably needed to practise more on that very piano than would otherwise be necessary.

The implication was that it was being rested and restored but that it would be back. The Ensemble now says in its latest newsletter:

In the meantime, the North Shore Sydney piano firm of Theme and Variations has been hiring us a Steinway grand piano on favourable terms for the Ensemble’s recent Saturday night concerts. The relationship blossomed in the latter part of last year into proposals for the purchase by UNSW of a new Steinway concert grand.

There is something just a little too unctuously poetic about that second sentence. I bet the relationship “blossomed” – the chance to slap down the upstart would have been too good to resist, and of course, on the part of Theme and Variations, the proposals were to sell a Steinway. T&V is the authorised Steinway dealer, and you can hardly blame them for that.

A new Steinway has been selected in Hamburg and is on its way. It may even be here this coming Saturday.

Well, this is all-too understandable, but disappointing. (It must be even more disappointing for Stuart and for Mr Albert of Albert & Sons who has backed Stuart and who in part donated the piano to UNSW for obvious promotional reasons. The Panglossian tone of the announcement may also rub some of the people involved in raising the remainder of the funds to purchase the Stuart up the wrong way.) It’s also sad that the piano is allowed to slink off without a proper and fair-and-square farewell. That’s for us, of course, not the instrument – I don’t take the pathetic fallacy so far.

An ideal solution would be to retain and maintain the Stuart for some repertoire (I really don’t think it was so totally clapped out as to be unuseable but, if so, to replace it with another Stuart) and use a new, probably Steinway, piano for the repertoire where it is the better choice. That is almost certainly a luxury that the ensemble cannot afford and that the university is not in a position to support.

Instead, pianistic quasi-biodiversity has taken another body blow.

10 Responses to “Hamburger Ensemble”

  1. Thom Says:

    Well, the growing monoculture is inextricably linked with the fly-by-night touring patterns of most concert pianists. Short of doing a Krystian Zimerman and carrying your own piano mechanism around with you, what’s to be done? It’s no surprise they pretty much all opt for a brand that is both ubiquitous and reliable, despite each instrument’s having its own personality. The Town Hall’s Fazioli, purchased with much fanfare, is another interesting situation of a venue opting to step outside the norm…

    I do agree with the idea of offering a choice of instruments. But I wonder to what extent the Stuart would be neglected if there were a Steinway on offer.

  2. marcellous Says:

    I hadn’t forgotten the Fazioli. Its fate is probably also bound up with the abandonment of the Town Hall as a serious concert venue.

    The Australia Ensemble has a resident pianist, so the situation could be different, but I expect money is a big obstacle. On reflection, I have been a bit ungracious because it is of course great that the university has come to the party (well, I am assuming it is the university) to buy a new piano at all. Look at the pianos the Music Department at Sydney had to work with for so many years.

    The more sobering thought is the extent to which the monoculture is also the sign of an instrument and cultural form in decline.

  3. Sarah Says:

    On a related note, if you’ve not seen it, there’s this review at Ionarts of a Beethoven recital by Till Fellner:

    (See final paragraph, which includes a fabulous final line from Fellner.)

  4. marcellous Says:

    I don’t think that’s such a fabulous final line, but it is likely to be a verdict on the quality of the embassy’s resident piano rather than on all Bösendorfers.

  5. Sarah Says:

    No, I don’t imagine it is a verdict on all Bösendorfers, but I just found it a pleasing little anecdote, especially imagined in Fellner’s (presumably) Austrian accent.

  6. David Says:

    An insider tells me the Stuart will be staying on at UNSW, as well as the new Steinway. How fortunate that there will now be a choice. Surely by now no one could be surprised by the ‘flowery’ poeticism of Roger Covell’s writing – a man who has described the amiable Spohr ‘Nonet’ as having climaxes akin to ‘a large wet fish being beaten upon the floor’ and ‘like a wet kiss from a heavily bearded man’.

    • marcellous Says:

      The announcement (I don’t have it in front of me right now) was that the Stuart is still there but that it will be used for other purposes than the Australia Ensemble concerts.

  7. Thom Says:

    Speaking of Sydney University pianos, at some point in my student years I was told that the battered old grand in the downstairs teaching studio of the Seymour Centre had belonged to Anna Russell. Any truth in that do you think?

    Implications of monoculture: sobering thought indeed. Especially when you consider the Haydn sonatas that were written for different styles of pianos and how they are tailored to the different sound worlds and strengths of those instruments. But didn’t somebody compose music specifically for the Stuart at some point when it was first launched? Or is that wishful reminiscence on my part?

  8. Thom Says:

    PS. I would own a Blüthner grand if I could. I use to play on one regularly for a choir that I accompanied. It was a lovely instrument and the extra resonating strings really did make a difference.

  9. Hamburger Ensemble 2 « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] the new piano? P’s and my consensus was “very smooth,” but beyond that this was not really the […]

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