​Our love affair with Bechstein

​Our love affair with Bechstein
by John Doe

For well over a century the British have had a love affair with the Bechstein piano, perhaps the quintessential domestic musical instrument. Along with Blüthner and Steinway, Bechstein represents the very best of German piano manufacturing, but in my view it was as much about the beauty of their cases as it was about their lovely sound that swayed the British to buy them in their thousands during the last century. The rosewood and mahogany veneers, in particular, are always so pleasing and they seem to fit comfortably into any style of room, which is partly why they remain a popular choice today. But there’s also a warmth of tone which you experience with an old Bechstein which is comforting and expressive. They’re perfect for playing Romantic genre pieces and accompanying singers and instrumentalists. There’s something homely about them which you don’t get so much with other German makers – but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is!

For the Brits, it all started back in Victorian times when Carl Bechstein made a savvy commercial move to supply Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with this gilded art-case grand piano which is now installed in the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace.

Pianos don’t get more fancy than that! Apparently the painted surface was by François Rochard, ‘with singeries and Berainesque motifs’. Not knowing what this meant, I looked it up and discovered that ‘singerie’ is the name given to genre of art in which monkeys are shown fashionably attired and aping (sorry!) human behaviour. Apparently it’s a term derived from the French for ‘monkey trick’. And ‘what about ‘Berainesque?’ I hear you ask. A quick Google search reveals that this refers to the work of Jean Berain, a painter and designer whose ornamental style was an important element in the style Régence that let to the French Rococo.

Queen Victoria’s piano was followed by other pianos being installed in British royal residencies during the 1880s. But it wasn’t just the Brits who were fans - the list of Bechstein’s royal patrons covered the length and breadth of Europe - as can be seen on this decal transfer on a Model B grand which The Piano Shop is currently rebuilding. This was Bechstein’s trade mark and is usually placed under the strings on their grand pianos. Everyone who’s anyone in royal terms is there - from ‘des Kaisers von Russland’ to ‘des Konigs von Spanien’.

In 1885 Bechstein opened their first branch in London and this became the largest and most prestigious piano showroom in Europe. Wigmore Hall, the famous London concert venue, was originally built in 1901 next door to the showroom at 40 Wigmore Street. It was then known as Bechstein Hall and it cost in the region of £100,000 at the time, which today equates to over £10 million.

The years before the first World War were commercially hugely successful for Bechstein: from 1900 to 1914 they produced around 56,000 pianos and employed over a thousand craftsmen in their Berlin factory. But with the start of the war everything was to change as all things Germanic were considered anti-patriotic in the UK. At the start of the war and up until 1915 Bechstein’s position was unaffected and they still held their royal warrant. However, the warrants to King George V and Queen Mary were formally cancelled on 13 April 1915 and with the ‘Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act’ of 1916 it was inevitable that Bechstein’s property, including the concert hall, showrooms and the 137 pianos they contained, were confiscated and sold. It was at that point that Bechstein Hall was publically auctioned as ‘enemy property’, being bought by Debenhams for £56,000. It was then renamed as Wigmore Hall and reopened in 1917.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Bechstein brand was able to re-establish itself as a competitor to the leading British makes of piano, such as Broadwood & Sons. By then, innovations in piano design and new materials were able to be harnessed by the company and it wasn’t long before they established themselves again as one of the leading piano manufacturers during the inter-war years. This evocative and charming film from 1926, with a modern soundtrack and wonderful playing from Oscar Peterson, a great Bechstein advocate, shows how successfully they got back on track. It’s a showcase of piano making, demonstrating construction of the case, the process of stringing, the making of the fretwork music desks and much more:

During the second World War the allies bombed Bechstein’s Berlin factory, along with those of many other piano makers, and their stores of matured wood, including the valuable spruce stock they used to make the soundboards, were completely destroyed. The company also lost many of its experienced craftsmen and it took a long time to return to full-scale production. However, by the 1950s they were producing about a thousand pianos a year – many destined for the UK.

Despite a turbulent relationship with the British, the Bechstein piano continues to delight pianists of all kinds. The concert grand at London’s Trident Studios, for example, was one of the most often recorded pianos in rock history and can be heard on tracks such as The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’, Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ and Bowie’s classic ‘Life on Mars’.

If you want to hear a Bechstein being played with real aplomb, I’d recommend Tatiana Nikolayeva’s acclaimed recordings of Bach. Then there's Arthur Schnabel's historically important recording of the complete set of Beethoven's sonatas. Best of all though would be Dinu Lipatti’s wonderful recording of Chopin’s Barcarolle. For me, that says it all!


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