The Magical Bösendorfer

 Bösendorfer Model 200, 1955; restored 2016 by Franco Skilan at Precision Piano, North Hollywood

Bösendorfer Model 200, 1955; restored 2016 by Franco Skilan at Precision Piano, North Hollywood

When I first played it, I just wasn't that impressed. Last fall, my piano teacher Salome Arkatov urged me to check out a Bösendorfer 200 for sale that had belonged to a dear friend of hers. A few keys in the center hinted at beauty, but otherwise it sounded dull and lifeless. Still, it was a Bösendorfer—the almost mythical "Lamborghini" of pianos.

Our classical world is dominated by Steinways. And that's a great thing. Steinway makes thousands of pianos a year, Bösendorfer only hundreds. But if you play a truly wonderful Bösendorfer, you hear colors, transparency, and resonance no other piano can create. Yet they can be temperamental and expensive to maintain. I was dubious, but Salome pressed me to get an expert opinion.

I discovered an expert technician in Los Angeles, Franco Skilan. He carries on from his father Giovanni who was a highly regarded Steinway and Bösendorfer expert in restoration. Franco came to see this Bösendorfer and explained the main problem: salt air had completely rusted the strings, and that the hammers and dampers were shot. The piano had been built in 1955 and little had been done to it.

 Rusted strings from 60 years of salt air in Brentwood!

Rusted strings from 60 years of salt air in Brentwood!

Franco assured me if I invested in restoration, I would not be disappointed. What an understatement that turned out to be! But several months went by as we waited for parts to come in from the Bösendorfer factory in Austria. The individual pieces—the shanks, the hammers, the dampers, are quite beautiful in themselves.

 Franco Skilan explaining the inner beauty of the Bösendorfer.

Franco Skilan explaining the inner beauty of the Bösendorfer.

The Bösendorfer factory strings are still hand wound. Franco insists that the tone produced by these strings alone sets the piano apart from other manufacturers.

Quite a bit of time went by when I finally received an urgent call from Franco saying I needed to come to the shop. At first, I thought, "Oh no! He broke it." I knew there were some issues with the tuning pins. But that was not it at all. When I returned his call, he insisted I needed to come over immediately and play it.

I hardly recognized the instrument. Like an art restoration expert patiently cleaning a great work, Franco had revealed underneath all that rust and crud a master instrument. He had finished restringing and regulating, and the sound quality even exceeded his own expectations. 

I played a low bass note and couldn't believe how clear and beautiful it sounded. No muddiness at all! As many of you know, the larger Bösendorfer's are famous for having 4 extra low keys going down to a low F, instead of the conventional low A of the piano. Those low notes are not intended to be played, but rather exist to add more depth to the bass notes above them. Interestingly, this 6'7" instrument has the same depth without those low keys.

The transparency continues in the middle and upper registers, but now there was a special glow, or blooming to the sound. It's a truly lyrical effect, not as solid as a Steinway, but more transparent. Sharp percussive music is not this piano's metier. Rather, it is a clear, unaffected singer perfectly suited to the Classic and Romantic eras. When I play it, I feel like my fingers  are sinking into a deep pool of turquoise water :) 

Bösendorfer's were first manufactured in the 1830s. The music of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin seems to best inspire its timbre. However, Bach and Handel sound beautiful on it, as do Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Playing this instrument is to be perpetually discovering new colors in all of this music. 

It inspired me already to record a recital of music I call Drones and Resonance. Here is an excerpt from it of the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major.

To quote Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca—"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."