The 5th Element #27 Page 2

As I said, the Stuart & Sons piano represents a radical rethinking of string coupling—and, it should be obvious, a very complete rethinking. Wayne Stuart has been working to bring his vision to reality for about 20 years. It shows, in both the attention to detail and the sonic results. However, even if I had heard the pianos live, which I have not, it might be difficult to apportion credit for the quality of the sound between the bridge agraffe and the underlying reality that Stuart & Sons pianos are designed and built to the highest standards of craftsmanship, and with jovial, even insouciant, disregard for final cost.

All Stuart pianos encompass a full eight octaves (97 keys rather than 88). With five extra keys in the treble and four in the bass, the Stuart pianos cover the range of notes F=21.82Hz to f'''''''' = 5587.65Hz (footnote 2) Like the Italian Fazioli instruments, the Stuart pianos also has four pedals rather than three, the fourth pedal acting to raise the action in order to shorten the hammer's stroke, resulting in softer dynamics and sweeter tone.

Although Stuart has shipped pianos to Europe and the UK, to date there have been no North American customers. In part this may be because there is a waiting list of about a year for the pianos, most of which are made to order, usually with veneers from dramatic and unusual Australian woods. Other factors could include the Stuart & Sons pianos' cost, and that concert artists and concert venues in North America often have special relationships with established piano marques and may be disinclined to upset that particular applecart.

As for cost, I'm robustly (even serenely) confident that you can have a Stuart & Sons concert grand delivered to your home for far less money than it would cost to buy Wavac's tube amplifiers, which cost $350,000/pair. To put things into perspective. If only for a moment.

About $175,000, allowing for some options, and taking into account customs, insurance, and airfreight, would seem to be the right ballpark, assuming you want the 9' 6" (2.9-meter) concert instrument. The 7' 6" (2.2m) model, designed for residences, costs less. Stuart & Sons' first 7' 6" instrument went to UK actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson. Good for him!

Stuart & Sons' website includes a Quicktime movie that is a fascinating, 20-minute, professionally produced documentary about the pianos and their history. The documentary includes a 3-D CAD rendering of the bridge agraffe, and live shots of the traditional bridge arrangement vs the Stuart development. (In this case, a moving picture is worth at least a few thousand words.) There are also quite a few performance segments by recording artists who have recorded using Stuart & Sons pianos. The website has a section showcasing the dozen and a half recordings made to date. This is a website well worth visiting.

Of the CD recordings I have so far heard, I recommend these four standouts. The recorded sound of each is excellent, the piano sound layered and nuanced, the playing first-rank:

Ian Munro: Mere Bagatelles (Tall Poppies TP080). Munro plays a set of short pieces for solo piano by various contemporary composers with links to Australia. The music is pianistic and never ugly, and some of it is really quite beautiful; eg, Carl Vine's Bagatelle 5, "Threnody."

David Stanhope Plays... (Tall Poppies TP135) is my favorite—a program of transcriptions that are technically very demanding but musically substantial and rewarding. In addition to Busoni's transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in e-flat, there are eight studies by Godowsky on Chopin Études. Of particular interest is Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's Symphony 8. Stanhope has technique to burn, a penetrating musical intelligence, and should be much more widely known.

The two above discs are on Australia's Tall Poppies label, which seems to be a connoisseuse-run labor of love and is well worth your support.

; Gerard Willems, piano; Antony Walker, Sinfonia Australis (ABC 980 046-5). The Stuart & Sons piano's clarity is at times reminiscent of the fortepiano, except with much more power in the bass, of course. Combine that with a sensitive interpreter and an orchestra that plays modern instruments with an awareness of period style, and the result is a bracing, refreshing reacquaintance with these warhorses. Willems has also recorded Beethoven's 32 sonatas on a Stuart & Sons instrument. I haven't heard that set, but, judging by this and the excerpts in the documentary video on the Stuart & Sons website, they're well worth having as well.

Simon Tedeschi (Sony Australia SK 89233) is the self-titled debut disc of Australian wunderkind Simon Tedeschi, now in his mid-20s. Although my own interests are better served by the rather austere and cerebral Stanhope disc, I recognize that Tedeschi's lighter and more varied program—which includes selections by Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Mozart, and Mendelssohn—will have wider appeal. Tedeschi has a very fluid technique, and more than a touch of poetry in his soul. His Rachmaninoff Élégie is captivating, and the two Selim Palmgren compositions, from a composer new to me, are very evocative. The Tedeschi disc was recorded in the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney—an acoustical gem with a program—appropriate seating capacity of about 1200. This was the first commercial recording to be made there. The sound is knockout all around.

Interestingly enough, years ago, Simon Tedeschi was the hand model (the person whose hands were filmed actually playing the piano excerpts) for Noah Taylor, the child actor who played David Helfgott as a young boy in the film Shine (DVD, New Line Cinema 4546). If you haven't seen Shine, you really should. It is the compelling (and largely true) story of an Australian piano prodigy whose perfectionist, domineering, overprotective, and totally possessive father was haunted by the loss of most of his extended family during the Holocaust. Little surprise, then, that the young David Helfgott had a very difficult career in life. After a competition performance, he suffered some sort of episode that caused doctors to subject him to electroshock therapy.

In Shine, Geoffrey Rush is positively brilliant as the adult Helfgott. What is even more remarkable is that Rush apparently plays piano well enough to have acted as his own hand model, with the real Helfgott dubbing the soundtrack. Rush's Academy Award for best actor (1996), against a field that included Tom Cruise, was as richly deserved as it was pleasantly surprising. Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud give understated but moving performances, while Armin Mueller-Stahl is totally believable as Helfgott's father. Highly recommended.

Finally, lovers of the piano—or anyone who enjoys a well-written memoir—should check out Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier (Random House). Carhart recounts the tentative steps by which he became friends with the standoffish owner of a neighborhood piano-repair shop, and embraced again his childhood love of the piano. It's quite the thing to read while listening to a recording of a Stuart & Sons concert grand!

Comments, questions, or invitations to the party you'll throw after taking delivery of your new Stuart & Sons piano.

Footnote 2: As distinct from the Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand, which also has 97 keys, but nine extra in the bass, and none extra in the treble. Stuart's piano is the first to have extra keys in the treble.—Ed.