-by Harry the Piano
A piano can only ever be the best compromise for either a concert pianist that wants to take on a variety of repertoire or an improviser who (like an idiot!) takes on requests to play any tune in any style. That seems an oddly negative sentiment with which to start an article on the instrument I love. But a pianist’s preference for his or her brand of piano and then the way they want their particular instrument set up can only ever be a subjective matter. That is why so many different brands survive even in today’s market place.
I have heard people speak with great authority about certain types of piano being good for particular composers or certain types of music but again, inevitably, it comes down to personal taste in the end. There are simply too many variables. The better one is able to control the sound with parameters such as seamless legato, ability to bring out a top line with ‘weaker’ fingers or internal voices whilst playing the outer edges of chords dolce, clarity of pedalling and half-pedalling and so on through the endless nuances of piano-playing, the larger the kaleidoscope of sounds one can coax from a good piano – but do we simply make impossible demands on an individual instrument?
I want a beautiful soft mellow middle register, perfect for the ethereal whole-tone harmony of Debussy but also capable of the harshly brittle sonority required for playing Bud Powell bebop lines. I want a ringing bell-like top end that will sing out the little melodic line created by the peaks of Liszt arpeggios but also be capable of biting your head off with the brassy, rasping, metallic texture of repeated fortissimo, staccato, five-note block cords in semiquavers at 200 bpm for my Jerry Lee Lewis tribute. I want a huge and rounded bottom register to pound out the fat bass octaves of Prokofiev but also one with the distinction and clarity to absorb lightning fast Dick Hymen boogie-woogie patterns right at the bottom of the instrument without blurring into an ugly muddy texture.
Then there is the action and set-up. Obviously complete evenness across the range is a given but I want it to be weighty and meaty enough to really be able to dig in with the shoulders for those huge eight note furious Beethoven chords, light enough to take on those impossibly fast Art Tatum treble figures and responsive enough to complete multiple unkindly swift repetitions of the same hammer in a Scarlatti sonata.
The point of all this then is, as we said at the start, that the poor piano can only do so much to meet all of these demands at any one time! It is up to the pianist to select the instrument which they feel ticks the most boxes in their own particular list of most important musical criteria. I recently undertook an engagement in Devon where I was playing my usual range of everything from the baroque counterpoint through to rock ‘n’ roll. The event was sponsored by Kawai Pianos who had kindly provided a beautiful new Shigeru SK3 Grand piano. I was hugely impressed by the instrument’s response to all the demands I put on it that night. A stunningly beautiful sound overall with a wonderful warmth in soft and gentle passages but also responding brilliantly to more forceful, percussive even angry playing at either extreme of the range. Everybody has their own favourite style, myself included of course, but choosing a well-made piano allows so much room to experiment, and this SK-3 certainly delivered that freedom!
About the author
Lauded by Jonathan Ross as ‘The best damn pianist in the civilised world’, Harry’s extraordinary talent has taken him worldwide with solo cabaret shows in the Albert Hall, Moulin Rouge and festival appearances from Barbados to Adelaide as well as headlining on the maiden voyage of QM2 alongside Dame Shirley Bassey and The Opera Babes. Resident pianist for five years on the Big Breakfast (Channel 4), he then musically directed BBC TV shows for several years and is now a regular on The Now Show (BBC Radio 4), Friday Night Is Music Night (BBC Radio 2) and the go-to improvisor for In Tune (BBC Radio 3) amongst other things where presenter Iain Burnside noted ‘You can’t be a pianist and not be a fan’. His ability to play any tune in any style on request has led to over 3 million hits on YouTube and appearances with everyone from Simply Red to David Bowie and Andrea Bocelli to Charlotte Church.
‘His phenomenal talent, charm and wit are a delight’ – Stephen Fry.
‘Spellbinding. Uncanny. Genius.’ – (Times. Independent. Guardian.)
For more about Harry the Piano, visit www.harrythepiano.com