BBC Radio 3's Piano A to Z
Z for Zany
The alphabetical exploration of the piano concludes with Z for Zany, an affectionate look at the role of the piano in comedy. Told at the keyboard by pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe.
Y for Yellow River
In 1969 at the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution the Yellow River Piano Concerto, commissioned by Madame Mao, received its highly politicised premiere. Despite being banned from Chinese musical life in 1976 it has slowly filtered back into the musical mainstream in a country with a huge affinity with the piano today. To say that 30 million Chinese school children are learning to play the instrument is a conservative estimate: some say the figure is as high as 90 million. For the Chinese the piano has become a potent symbol of the importance of hard work and dedication, as well as the perfect instrument for the one-child family system.
X for X-treme
Although every instrument has a history of extreme techniques, the piano seems to have attracted more than its fair share of people wanting to see how far it, and they, could go. From Beethoven, who was known for destroying pianos during the course of a performance, through to John Cage (who invented the prepared piano by inserting screws, rubbers and bolts into it) and beyond, this episode of the Piano A–Z is not for those of a sensitive disposition.
W for Workshops
What goes into the making of a piano? How do the pianos of today differ from those which Liszt or Debussy might have played? In the central London workshop of Steinway's, there are stripped down pianos everywhere, skeletons with their strings and frames exposed, and benches with vices and chisels like any carpenter would use. The scene is much like it would have been a hundred years ago, and Steinway still employs apprentices who are trained in the craft and art of piano maintenance.
Ulrich Gerhartz, their Director of Concerts and Artist Services explains what goes into the crafting of Steinway's delicately balanced instruments, and pianist Stephen Hough reflects on how changes in the manufacture of pianos means that the sounds he makes today are very different from the virtuosi of the past.
V for Virtuoso
Virtuoso is a term applied to many of the world's top pianists of today. With its roots in the Italian usage of the 16th and 17th centuries, a virtuoso is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in any intellectual or artistic field. But it takes much more than just playing demi-semi quavers on a keyboard to dazzle an audience. So what are the true qualities of virtuosity and which particular composers are regarded as virtuosi, writing music to show off their own technical prowess at the keyboard? Featuring Lang Lang, Angela Hewitt and Stephen Hough.
U for Upright
‘A sort of musical fungus attached to the walls of semi-detached houses in the provinces’ is how celebrated conductor and fount of bons mots Sir Thomas Beecham once described the upright piano. In ‘U is for Upright’ there’s one attached to the wall in the childhood home of concert pianist Jonathan Biss, another played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in a pizzeria which becomes an unlikely Youtube hit, and a third in a London pub which helps oil the wheels of a convivial evening.