Guest post by Michael Johnson
“It’s important,” explains piano builder Wayne Stuart of Tumut, Australia, “to realize that we perceive sound not only through our ears but through all of our body.” That’s how the Big Beleura, his new 108-key concert grand, gets to you.
At the recent world première of the instrument, composer Alan Griffiths had rescored one of his pieces to better exploit the extended range of the keyboard, and pianist Nicholas Young had to play part of it standing up. As he reached inside to strum with his left hand, he played the octave melody on the upper keys, and the audience reportedly loved it.
Young says he finds the extended bass keys “incredibly sonorous even when not in use. They seem to contribute to the entire timbre. It pulses through one’s entire body like an organ pedal note.”
Stuart has described his expanded keyboard concept in these terms: “Once players have tasted these fruits, they will never willingly return to 88 keys … Can you believe there are players and luddites who think this is crazy?”
And indeed, the premiere audience for the new model was a full house of “very excited”, but not crazy, music lovers who “listened to every note and sprang to their feet” at the climax, Stuart recalled during our week-long exchange of emails recently. Their attention never waned. “Folk were there to get everything they could from the experience.”
As director of Piano Australia Pty Ltd that presides over the manufacture of the Stuart & Sons brand, Stuart believes his new four-pedal expanded keyboard piano may show the way for the first radical advance in piano design in more than 130 years. Certain limited experiments aside (such as Bösendorfer’s Imperial and Daniel Barenboim’s disappointing “Barenboim”), piano architecture has been pretty much frozen since the 1880s.
Not surprisingly, some players and critics remain skeptical. I asked the respected critic and composer Melinda Bargreen of Seattle how excited she is – or isn’t — about the new piano. “I salute Wayne Stuart for pushing musical boundaries,” she wrote in an email exchange with me. “Experimental composers may enjoy tinkering with those extra 20 notes but they must face the fact that their performance opportunities will be extremely limited. The size, price and 1,420-pound weight will make these instruments inaccessible to nearly everyone outside of Australia.” (The Steinway Model D concert grand weighs a mere 990 pounds.)
And yet the piano is off to a promising start. Beleura House and Garden villa and concert hall on Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, where the premiere was held, was already an attraction for music-lovers and is now boosted by the acquisition of the first Big Beleura.
The new piano will come to Europe and the United States only if a buyer will commission a new hand-crafted model. Stuart tells me it would go for about $250,000 and will require a full year to build. In the interim, YouTube videos and a forthcoming Griffiths recording will fill the gap for those of us in the northern hemisphere.
Ashley Hribar, an Australian pianist of German-Slovenian parentage, has logged the most hours on the massive keyboard and praises the “amazing colour” of the piano. He tells me in an interview (see below) that the tone and the touch of the piano proved easier to master than he expected. “After about 30 minutes I felt quite at ease and everything became intuitive,” he said. The 1,492mm (4 feet 10 inch) wide keyboard would be a stretch for a child prodigy but average players seem unfazed. Long-limbed Hribar can reach both ends by leaning forward slightly.
A modest player and highly trained piano technician, Stuart has added ten notes to the bass and ten to the treble. He is now encouraging composers to come forward to experiment with it. The first to emerge is Brazilian pianist Artur Cimirro with a composition that takes in the full keyboard.
Premiere pianist Young reminds me there is a long tradition of imitating the organ when performing or arranging Bach (e.g. Busoni, von Bülow, Liszt), so the extended sonorities allow the pianist to come even closer to perfecting that illusion. “I imagine that works using extended technique, such as Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, would also be incredibly effective with the extended range, he said. “Duet arrangements of symphonies, like those that Liszt arranged of Beethoven, will sound fantastic.”
The additional keys, made possible in part by technical developments in string metallurgy, rarely carry melody but are effective for percussive effects and resonate when played together at an adjacent octave. I can confirm, after much research, that the effect of these extreme notes does indeed set the body tingling.
The limits of piano wire performance have been pushed by Stephen Paulello Piano Technologies, near Fontainebleau in France, at Stuart’s urging. A super-strong wire suitable for extreme treble keys was first developed in 2012 and toughened up just a year ago to enable the 108-key range.
As new repertoire for the instrument emerges, other works are being amended and adapted to incorporate the highs and lows. Griffiths says he was pleased to hear the “visceral energy” of the deep growling bass with percussive left-hand chord clusters. In his adaptations, he was after an “unworldly sound — primal even — to do what no other piano can do.”
Hribar is also rearranging some of his repertoire, including his own Paganini Variations and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz Nr 1. “I am hoping many other composers will continue to write for the expanded keyboard,” says Hribar.
In this excerpt, Young is playing Griffiths’ “Cakewalk from Hell”. The deep bass takes over at 40 seconds :
The 108 key grand piano at Beleura House
Some of the above historical information originates in an excellent article written by Paul Corbin entitled “Why Extend the Range of the Piano?”. This is published on the Stuart and Sons website.