Steinway Artist Víkingur Ólafsson talks through the process of selecting a Model B with our Editor in Chief.
“This would be not my first, nor my second, nor my third visit here to the Hamburg Steinway Factory to select a piano. I don’t know how many pianos
I have selected in my life, but quite a few. And with it comes a lot of responsibility, especially when you’re selecting for other people.
“And in this particular case today, it’s an added responsibility because I’m actually selecting a piano, a Model B, for a music school that’s actually in my suburb of Reykjavík, Seltjarnarnes. And it’s actually the piano that my two boys are probably going to be playing at some point in the future.
“It’s a big deal. There’s a big birthday coming up for the music school there in the next year. And we really need to find something absolutely magical for those kids. They’ve been begging for this piano for years. They were really waiting for it and hoping for it for such a long time.
“So here I am today to try to fulfill their wishes, but you need to find that moment when you just have love at first sight, this kind of magic when the piano brings you ideas. Because then for the kids, when they play it, it will really change the way they think of music: going from a much lesser instrument that they currently have to hopefully an amazing Steinway.
“Well, some people say, ‘I’ll take a Model B’ and sometimes they are lucky that the instrument matches their expectations and their personal preference. But even if all these pianos look the same, they are completely, completely different. What really is different in a piano from this one to that one to that one is the wood, the soundboard under the strings. That’s the character of the piano.
“And that is really what you are selecting here: you’re looking for a certain color, a certain firmness in the wood, a certain sort of equality in the registers. You’re looking for a singing quality, a sound that doesn’t decay too soon. At least I am, because I am not really looking for a perfect instrument in here — they never are. You’re looking for potential. When the instruments are young like these are, they’re not completely themselves yet, but you’re looking for something to sculpt, hopefully with a great piano technician.
“And so you’re looking for a big instrument with a lot of beauty, but sometimes a raw instrument also. Sometimes the most beautiful instruments here are not necessarily the right choice because they might not have the same potential as something that might be slightly less ‘pretty,’ but might have this incredible potential to sculpt it into something very magnificent.
“In my experience, it takes two or three years for a piano to somehow ‘find its home.’ The piano is here. When you bring it to Iceland, where I come from and where this piano is going, it’s a completely different situation.
You’re looking for a certain color, a certain firmness in the wood, a certain sort of equality in the registers. you’re looking for a singing quality, a sound that doesn’t decay too soon. At least I am . . . .
We have a different humidity level; we have a different temperature. Everything is different. It’s much drier there.
“A piano is made out of metals and wood and screws and steel. Basically, all those things are in living harmony, and they change from temperature to temperature, day to day really. And the soundboard also changes in that way. I think that is basically what happens. And that’s why it takes a little bit of time for the piano to, in a way, become itself. That’s why you’re looking for potential.
“And I’m always going for something big, even if it’s not for a Carnegie Hall or somewhere. I’m always going for something that has a big, beautiful, full sound, an even sound in all registers. And for the Model Bs, what you’re looking for and what I have in my Model B from 2009 — the first piano I selected here — is this feeling that it is actually a Model D, that it is a bigger model than it actually is. You have a bass that just blooms. And you have an upper register, the top register of the piano, even when the dampers stop on the strings, you still want something that has that roundness and that focus of sound. So it’s not
just overtones, but somehow you feel the core of the sound. Those are the main concerns.
“Most Steinways really have a very beautiful middle register. It’s just naturally a beautiful register in the piano. And I think Michel Brandjes, one of the very greatest technicians in the world, he actually said to me, ‘There is no such thing as a bad Steinway.’ And he’s right because you can do incredible things with almost any Steinway.
“But it’s not about what’s better or worse, it’s about how it speaks to you and how you react to it. And you just know somehow when you find it. You have that moment of, ‘Mmm: this one.’ ”