It takes an expert team to keep Wigmore Hall’s Steinway concert grands in top order. Andrew Stewart speaks to the highly skilled technicians whose work provides the perfect platform for hundreds of piano performances each season.
Trademarks rarely become synonymous with their products. Those that do stand or fall on quality. Steinway’s universal recognition and reputation for excellence run far beyond the music world, fixed in the minds of millions as the gold standard for grand pianos. While other concert instruments are available, as impartial commentators might say, they must all be measured against the Hamburgbuilt Steinway Model D. Wigmore Hall owns three of Steinway’s flagship grands. The ceaseless demands of performers and performances require technical care of the kind found in Formula One pit lanes and aircraft maintenance hangars. It’s all part of the service provided to Wigmore Hall by Steinway’s dedicated team of piano technicians.
The Formula One analogy is not lost on Ulrich Gerhartz, Director Concert and Artist Services for Steinway & Sons London. Preparing a Model D for optimal performance, he notes, involves responsive teamwork and close consultation with individual artists. Andreas Haefliger’s recent Wigmore Hall recital, for instance, crowned by Beethoven’s mighty ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, was prefaced by a painstaking process of adjustment and regulation intended to give the performer exactly what he wanted. “He felt the piano was too bright for his last recital, so we stayed in touch to plan the piano preparation for his next concert,” Gerhartz recalls. “I went to the Hall the Friday before the May bank holiday to do maintenance work on the piano. Andreas flew to London to test the instrument on the bank holiday and was happy with it.”
When Haefliger returned for his recital the following week, Nigel Polmear, one of Steinway’s most experienced tunertechnicians, tuned the piano that morning and checked it again before the performance. “Andreas sent me a text message after his concert to say it went very well and that he really enjoyed the piano,” notes Gerhartz. “That shows the involvement we have with the artist and with the Hall.” A member of the Steinway technical team, he adds, will tune the instrument before every Wigmore Hall performance. “When you have crazy days with a morning, afternoon and evening concert, we are there three times to check the piano.”
Dealing with Wigmore Hall’s ‘crazy days’ is part of the tuner’s lot. “We know from experience how to work within thoseconfines,” says Nigel Polmear, who has worked for Steinway & Sons since the mid-1980s. “The Hall’s backstage staff are very helpful and want to give us as much time as possible. The starting point is always to make sure the tuning is solid and stable, which usually means getting to the Hall at eight in the morning and working on the piano for two hours.” If certain notes sound brighter than others, Steinway’s tuners will needle the instrument’s hammers to soften their felt or make other subtle changes. “The goal is to keep things in good order. All that matters is that the artist can perform without worrying about the instrument.”
In addition to the almost daily tuning round and minor adjustments, Steinway & Sons deliver a rolling piano maintenance programme at Wigmore Hall. The latter recognises the needs of regular visitors, finding time between rehearsals and concerts to ensure the piano is as they like it. “It’s a well-timed combination of maintenance, which involves regulation of the action and voicing [or adjusting the piano’s sound quality] as well as tuning,” comments Ulrich Gerhartz.
When not in use, Wigmore Hall’s resident Model D Steinways live beneath the stage. The main instrument was chosen in December 2014 by Igor Levit at Steinway’s Hamburg factory. It carries around 90 percent of the Wigmore Hall piano workload. Several artists, Sir András Schiff, Graham Johnson, Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau among them, favour the Hall’s 1980 Steinway. The venerable instrument, affectionately known as ‘The Old Lady’, has been rebuilt in Hamburg and received several major overhauls in recent years. Geoffrey Parsons and Malcolm Martineau originally chose it for the Hall. “Although it’s harder to tune than the new instrument, its unique sound and feel are popular with certain performers,” comments Nigel Polmear. A third Model D, selected by Sir András Schiff in 2007, is kept at nearby Steinway Hall and transported to Wigmore Street for concerts requiring two pianos.
“The 1980 instrument would be too fragile to be used seven days a week,” observes Ulrich Gerhartz. “Older players are used to its sound projection, which is different from the more modern pianos. That’s why we reserve ‘The Old Lady’ for them.” Wigmore Hall’s workhorse Model D, he adds, can withstand the forces generated in recitals of heavyweight Romantic repertoire and rarely needs more than tuning afterwards. “If you had to work on a piano for four hours after something like Andreas Haefliger’s ‘Hammerklavier’, then Wigmore couldn’t offer the programme it does. They’ll start rehearsals at ten the following morning for a lunchtime recital and rehearse after that for the evening, which leaves only enough time for tuning before each performance. Our performance pianos are nurtured by a technical team and rebuilt as needed. It’s like the difference between a Formula One race car and a small hatchback that’s used for trips to Sainsbury’s twice a week!”
Steinway and Sons, established in New York City in March 1853, began by producing fine square pianos at the rate of around one per week. Steinway instruments, grands and uprights, were soon in high demand in Europe. The firm established its second factory in Hamburg in 1880, five years after opening the 400-seat Steinway Hall as part of its London showrooms and sales department. The original Steinway Hall, based at 15 & 17 Lower Seymour Street (later incorporated into Wigmore Street), closed in 1924, reopened the following year as Grotrian Hall, and was destroyed during a German incendiary raid in 1943. Steinway’s London headquarters moved to nearby George Street and finally settled in Marylebone Lane in 1982.
When Steinway’s esteemed German rivals opened Bechstein Hall in 1901, Wigmore Street was already a byword for the best in piano making. Nationalist sentiments during the First World War forced Bechstein Hall’s closure. After the venue reopened as Wigmore Hall in 1917, Steinway became theprincipal supplier of its grand pianos. The relationship has deepened over the past century and stands today as a vital ingredient in the Hall’s artistic success. “It’s a team effort,” notes Ulrich Gerhartz. “Steinway London is unique in having the infrastructure to provide leading players with what they want. It relies on the free flow of communication between us, artists and Wigmore Hall and support for the younger members of the team. Our passion is to provide a service to music that few people see but everyone can hear.”
This article was originally published in The Score magazine in Autumn 2018. The magazine is curated exclusively for Friends of Wigmore Hall and is published 3 times a year. To find out more about Friends of Wigmore Hall please visit here