A new piano for Christ Church Cathedral? “It’s all about nuance,” say the experts

The Christ Church Cathedral piano has been played by some of the best musicians in the world. Through the Oasis Musicale series, the Cathedral presents the finest in classical and modern music. Read on as we explore the origins of the instrument and talk to concert pianist Viktor Lazarov about the joys and difficulties of performing on the Cathedral’s Yamaha grand.

Pianist Sean Sullivan at the Cathedral concert piano. (photo: Henri Brillon)

What differentiates a good piano from a great one? Pianists speak in terms of “colour possibilities”, nuance and subtlety.

Although Steinway currently enjoys the best reputation when it comes to concert pianos, other manufacturers have also made top notch instruments. Pianists even say they have played instruments of one brand that displayed the qualities attributed to another. In any case, a $100,000 piano will likely sound pretty good, whether it was made by Bösendorfer, Yamaha or Fazioli!

So what about the Christ Church Cathedral piano? Where does it figure on the scale from good to great?

The Christ Church Cathedral piano

To find out, Rising Up! spoke with concert pianist Viktor Lazarov, who is very familiar with the instrument. “I have played at Christ Church about twice a year since 2009,” he says. “Every time, there were 200 to 250 people in attendance. I love playing there because the audience is so warm and enthusiastic.”

When it comes to the instrument, though, Lazarov is politely less effusive. Comparing it to others he regularly plays in Montreal, he says it is not as sophisticated and its touch is not quite as responsive. “Maybe it is because it is old, but the keys are unstable and the range of expression is limited, particularly if one wants to vary between loud and soft notes.”

Pianist Julien Leblanc at the Cathedral concert piano. If the sound produced were compared to a black and white photograph…

To use a visual analogy, if the sound produced were compared to a black and white photograph, a whole range of grey tones would be inaccessible to the artist. This curtails musical interpretation, which is, after all, the mark of a great performer.

A virtuoso may be able to tease a good concert out of an adequate instrument, but the finest performances are given on pianos of a quality commensurate to the pianist’s talent and musicianship. Christ Church Cathedral often welcomes high calibre musicians of international renown, but some will not come to play on a difficult instrument that does not provide them with the colours and nuances they need to give the music its full, rich expression. This is why replacing the concert piano was added to the list of urgent repairs and modern improvements to be funded by the Campaign.

Dulcimer, spinet, clavichord

 The key to the keys

Pianos evolved because 14th-century composers wanted to gain more control over volume and expression in the interpretation of their works. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their contemporaries all tried out different instruments and manufacturers were constantly adapting in order to achieve the sound they were looking for. By the 15th century, keyboard craftsmen had produced in relatively quick succession the clavichord, the spinet, the virginal, the clavecin, the harpsichord, and the gravicembalo. (Click on the links to hear the instruments.)

All these may look and sound more or less the same to us, but each came out of the manufacturers tinkering with technical aspects of their craft. They experimented with changing things like key height, hammer weight, distance between hammers and strings, cabinet shape, and sounding board length. The goal was always to produce an instrument that provided greater control over dynamic expression.

The great mystery

In a Washington Post article (Beyond the Steinway Monoculture), Anne Garee, director of the piano technology program at Florida State University’s College of Music, says what will keep a musician at the keyboard is an instrument that possesses a good tonal range (lowest note of the contrabassoon to highest note of the piccolo) and that responds on all dynamic levels (variation in volume), from pianissimo to sforzando and fortissimo.

The greatest mystery? Even though every instrument is made the same way by the same craftsmen using the same materials and tools, no two pianos are ever alike. Sound quality and touch can only be ascertained through playing.

Support Christ Church Cathedral’s music programs

Of the funds raised during the Major fundraising campaign, $180,000 are earmarked to restore the Karl Wilhelm organ and to replace the concert piano. If you would like to support these upgrades to the Cathedral’s musical instruments, please click here.  Big or small, every donation counts!

Special Oasis Musicale Matinée Performance:
Viktor Lazarov brings his Rhythm and Colours of the Balkans to Christ Church Cathedral

Pianist Viktor Lazarov brings his new recital to Christ Church Cathedral on February 3rd.

On February 3rd, Viktor Lazarov presents his most recent recital featuring works by contemporary and early 20th century Serbian and Serbian Canadian composers.

This young Canadian-Serbian pianist’s wide musical interests have led him to perform a solo and chamber repertoire ranging from the Baroque to the 21st century. He is the recipient of several prizes including the Silver and Bronze medals at the Concours de Musique du Royaume (2017 & 2016), a graduate award from the OICRM (Observatoire interdisciplinaire de création et de recherche en musique) in 2017, and the prestigious SSHRC CGS Master’s award in 2014 for his research and performance of keyboard works by J.S. Bach.

Viktor has performed internationally in the New York City International Keyboard Institute and Festival, the University of Florida International Piano Festival and the Burgos Music Festival in Spain. His recordings have been broadcast in the USA and in Serbia.

When: Saturday, February 3rd, at 2:00 p.m.
Where: Christ Church Cathedral, 635 Ste-Catherine St. West, Montreal
Suggested minimum “participation donation” of $10.

Have a Say

Have you enjoyed the piano concerts at the Cathedral? Have you or your ensemble presented a recital there? Please consider sharing your story with our readership. Contact us at Campaign.Communications@montrealcathedral.ca.

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