Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

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Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by Lance » Sat Jul 29, 2017 2:41 pm

For many years now, as a concert piano technician and record collector with heavy emphasis on piano recordings, I have observed that the piano sound from the electrical era (commencing around 1926), as well as some early acoustical piano recordings (pre-1926), the piano tone and quality was often times much more appealing than it is today, despite the beauty and clarity of tape and digital formats. What prompted me to even write on this subject was listening to a wonderful collection of all of pianist Lili Kraus's recordings made between 1933 and 1958 as offered in Erato's amazing 31-CD boxed set [issued in 2014]. It matters not if the pianist is Kraus, Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Cortot, Solomon (days of 78s) and a number of celebrated pianists who made recordings up to about 1950 when generally tape took over to produce the LP recordings.

There is no question that the PIANOS themselves have taken on a much different quality than the Bechsteins, Steinways, Bluthners, Gaveaus, Bosendorfers, Erards, Pleyels, and other European manufacturers. There was a built-in "singing quality" in these pianos without the stridency we hear from other manufacturers. It is not only the hammer felt quality, soundboard quality and other elements that contribute to this. Hammer felt is much harder torday, or is hardened artificially to produce BIG tone and volume. In some cases, in great manufacturing processes, we still get the bigger volume of tone, but in many but not necessary the favored "singing" and even quality between all 88 notes that is spoken of so often by the great pianists.

I was also recently re-reading the Steinway & Sons 1982 publication Talking About Pianos by Corby Kummer. Within that book, even Steinway says no two pianos are every 100% exactly alike despite the same materials and technicians used in the manufacture of the instruments. Many great Steinway artists give their accounts about the pianos they use especially for concert performing. They aren't always especially favorable, but are careful in their choice of words. Lili Kraus contributed this, from which I quote. She has always been a Steinway artist and she, of course, speaks about their pianos eloquently and with great love:

"I'm a daredevil by nature, and I will take the risk of choosing a piano that is tough going in order to the beauty of sound I want. Ideally, of course, I would choose the instrument that best speaks my language, which is one of infinite articulation and tremendous precision with a shiny treble and powerful bass. In 1965. I bought a Steinway to prepare a Mozart concerto that I had to record. It wasn't seasoned in my way. It wasn't painted, even it looked like a piece of raw wood, a monster. ugh, how I hated it. It was stiff, it was lifeless, it was terrible. i had to conquer it. By and by it yielded and now, I wouldn't part with that piano for anything in the world. Imiss it when I'm away, but i miss a piano as I miss my family. I adore them, I long for them, but they cannot actually be present in my day-to-day life. Every time I play it the Steinway teaches me something. You have a hypnotic vision of a chord--for instance, the first chord of the Beethoven G Major Concerto, which is one of the most difficult beginnings imaginable. Without the piano's help you couldn't approach, let alone materialize that sound you imagine. So you materialize it; but that is not good enough so you go further, and the Steinway goes with you -- and goes ahead of you, and falls short when you fall short. It's a very complex and miraculous procedure."

Mme. Kraus recorded for many record labels. The relatively new Erato set embraces all her Parlophone [EMI], Ducretet-Thomson and Les Discophiles Francais Recordings, which, for me, constitutes the best recordings ever made by the piano. She recorded for Epic/Columbia/Sony, RCA Victor, Concert Hall, Educo, Vox (in the mono days, and very acceptable pianos comparable to the Erato set tradition), and Vanguard. The type of piano used in the Vanguard recordings is very fine by today's piano standards, but the tone quality Kraus achieves is nothing like it was in solo, concerto, and chamber music recordings in the Erato set. In the final analysis, when Kraus was at her best, which she is in her recordings, she remains the consummate artist.

All this is written for comparison's sake to make my point about pianos, their sound, actions, tone quality, and evenness of touch and sound. I hope you found it somewhat interesting. I'd love to hear from others who may have made these same kinds of observations. Remember, I'm talking only about PIANOS used in solo, concerto, and chamber recordings, not orchestral recordings.
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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by John F » Sat Jul 29, 2017 4:54 pm

Brendel says several times in his writings, in different words but adding up to the same point, that the piano recordings of Cortot, Fischer et al. made in the 1930s sound more like real pianos than much of what came later.
Alfred Brendel wrote:I often find that the most beautiful sound imaginable is from recordings made in the thirties by Fischer and Cortot, despite the alleged lack of dynamic variety. As a listening musician, however, I do not miss it. I always hear where the climaxes are, and with these pianists I can always sense accurately when they are playing pianissimo. And in the Busch Quartet's recordings of the early thirties you can understand more clearly than anywhere else what Beethoven meant by his markings.
In "Myself of All People." And:
Alfred Brendel wrote:In coping with pianos, modern recording technique appears to run into one problem after another. Why was it so easy to make good piano recordings in the nineteen-thirties? When listening to the records of Cortot, Fischer or Schnabel, I feel as if I were sitting in a good seat in a good hall; the timbre of each great pianist is there, the piano sounds homogeneous in all registers, dynamic climaxes and hushed tones come over with equal conviction.
In "Coping with Pianos."
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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by jserraglio » Sat Jul 29, 2017 6:25 pm

[snip] the alleged lack of dynamic variety. As a listening musician, however, I do not miss it. I always hear where the climaxes are, and with these pianists I can always sense accurately when they are playing pianissimo
Was Brendel interpolating what he heard? I often catch myself mentally filling in the dynamic range when listening to transfers from shellacs.

In the LP era, Connoisseur Society made superb-sounding piano recordings, e.g., Ivan Moravec, Anthony di Bonaventura and Antonio Barbosa.

In the CD era, Nojima's Liszt and Ravel recitals on Reference Recordings have fully satisfying piano sound.

And recording giant Dutch Philips produced a slew of very natural sounding piano recordings, many by Brendel himself.

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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by John F » Sun Jul 30, 2017 12:31 am

Does your opinion of the sound of those 1930s recordings differ from Brendel's?

Regarding more recent recordings, he writes:
Alfred Brendel wrote:While the engineers of the old 78-rpm days may still in all innocence have heard the music as a horizontal succession of sounds, their present-day colleagues, with their imposing musical and technical qualifications, have difficulty in breaking away from the habit of vertical listening, the close scrutinizing of knife-edge synchronization of sounds, which the modern practice of tape editing has inculcated in them as second nature.
Elsewhere - I can't pin it down just now - Brendel observes that in contemporary recordings, the sound of the piano in close-up mic placement is artificially mixed with hall reverberation at a distance, creating an artificial sound which he compares with dropping a pin in a tiled bathroom. :)
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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by jserraglio » Sun Jul 30, 2017 6:28 am

The first quote (not the second) left me wondering whether Brendel actually heard those climaxes and pianissimos or, as a professional "listening musician", interpolated them.

I love the 30s piano recordings Brendel mentions and would never part with E. Fischer and Cortot, or the Serkin/Busch Quartet on my Angel Japan LPs. But I wonder whether I love them more for the performances than for their sound, though they do sound pretty good. Hard for me to separate sound from performance.

I don't agree that postwar piano recordings made in the tape or digital era generally sound unnatural or inferior, though the performances might be. I have a lot of good-sounding piano recordings on LP and quite a few on CD. Besides Brendel & Arrau on Philips, Rubinstein (Max Wilcox) & Claude Frank on RCA and Curzon & Backhaus on Decca, most everything I have with piano on Supraphon, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, MDG and Telarc has natural sound. Then there is my Murray Perahia box on Sony: it not only looks like a piano, it sounds like one.

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Last edited by jserraglio on Sun Jul 30, 2017 12:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by Lance » Sun Jul 30, 2017 11:29 am

Brendel is universally known for being very "picky" about his pianos and has frequently alienated his piano technicians by bringing his own "tools" of the trade to make changes that he deemed necessary to satisfy his own needs. Those "changes" he made, particularly with the hammers, might not be suitable to the next person using the piano. But I admire his ears in what he was trying to accomplish at the piano.

Pianos in the early years, particularly from about 1900 to 1950 I think may have been better "engineered" with more artistic hand quality in achieving the goals. Many pianists in Europe especially liked the characteristics of the Bechstein piano (for Schnabel, it was really his first choice but things had to change once he began appearing in the USA. There he used Steinway and back in Europe it was the Bechstein for recordings and concerts.)

Think of the famous Stradivarius violins made centuries ago, with little help from science but in the careful use of woods and constructions. Yes, there are many good contemporary violins but the great artists continued to want the Strads or other similarly well-known violins. The art of making superior instruments has changed, and in no way, can it compare to the way automobiles are manufactured today. After all, they are not works of art as in the fine arts (perhaps a bad analogy); however, each auto manufacturer had designs of cars that were readily recognizable. Today, most of the cars are difficult to distinguish from each other. Pianos still look like pianos but are vastly different with regards to their interiors and what they can produce.
Lance G. Hill
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by jserraglio » Sun Jul 30, 2017 11:50 am

Yes, but which would sound more like a real violin heard live in a good hall: a Stad recorded in 1937 or the same instrument recorded in 2017?

For recorded piano sound, Brendel appears to prefer 1930s technology, which I think is odd, to say the least:
In coping with pianos, modern recording technique appears to run into one problem after another. Why was it so easy to make good piano recordings in the nineteen-thirties?

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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by maestrob » Sun Jul 30, 2017 12:42 pm

Liili Kraus wrote:
"I'm a daredevil by nature, and I will take the risk of choosing a piano that is tough going in order to the beauty of sound I want. Ideally, of course, I would choose the instrument that best speaks my language, which is one of infinite articulation and tremendous precision with a shiny treble and powerful bass.
Sviatoslav Richter was notoriously un-picky about the pianos he played, yet he produced some of the finest piano recordings ever made. Kraus chose her pianos carefully, as did Brendel, and their modern stereo recordings are staples in my listening. I agree, though, with Lance, that modern pianos have a harder sound. AS an experiment, I made recordings with my singers over a two years period in 2001-02, and the best of them were made on a 1910 Steinway D, which had a warm, full tone that reminded me of the older recordings mentioned above, without the harsh spikes of sound at climaxes.

As for Murray Perahia, I have his box as well, and I find his playing tries to emulate the "old sound," which is eminently satisfying to my ears.

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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by John F » Sun Jul 30, 2017 2:53 pm

Schnabel and Fischer played Bechstein pianos in the 1930s, Cortot a Pleyel. Schnabel changed to Steinway in the 1940s for political reasons - Mrs. Bechstein was a Nazi enthusiast. Brendel's comments refer not to the original sound of those artists' pianos, whatever they were, but to the sound obtained by the recording engineers of HMV and its German and French affiliates. My ear for such things is not as good as his, or yours; I'm reporting his comments relevant to the topic of this thread, for what they're worth.
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Re: Piano Sound of 78s vs. Hi-Fi/Stereo

Post by Lance » Sun Jul 30, 2017 10:02 pm

Among the reasons Artur Schnabel came to the American shores so late in his otherwise European fame was that the Bechstein piano he loved so much was not generally available here. Steinway wanted him to switch solely to their piano, but an arrangement was made to use American Steinways in the USA and Bechsteins when he was back in Europe. Serkin also preferred the Bechstein as did so many Jewish pianists. They largely did ot return to Bechstein after the war because of Helene Bechstein's endorsement of Hitler. Many of the French pianists preferred Pleyel or Gaveau pianos, but in the end, Cortot also played Steinways ... by that time, they were probably the world's most prominent instrument. As for recording quality, the 78-rpm method picked up the sound very well given the microphonics of those days, as did it work so well for vocalists; less well for orchestras, but worked well, too, for chamber music trios, quartets and quintets.
John F wrote:
Sun Jul 30, 2017 2:53 pm
Schnabel and Fischer played Bechstein pianos in the 1930s, Cortot a Pleyel. Schnabel changed to Steinway in the 1940s for political reasons - Mrs. Bechstein was a Nazi enthusiast. Brendel's comments refer not to the original sound of those artists' pianos, whatever they were, but to the sound obtained by the recording engineers of HMV and its German and French affiliates. My ear for such things is not as good as his, or yours; I'm reporting his comments relevant to the topic of this thread, for what they're worth.
Lance G. Hill
Editor-in-Chief
______________________________________________________

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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