Saturday, 7 September 2013

Old Europe, and all that's wonderful about it.

I have to get this off my chest before I forget it. Every now and then, someone asks me why I love Europe so much. Due to maybe being three-quarters of the way through an excellent bottle of Bordeaux I'm not always able to give a coherent answer, but on this occasion I'll just tell you a story and leave you to ponder the rest.

I've been working at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany for ten years, now. I know it's ten years because I was awarded a little trophy by the town of Bayreuth this summer for my services to the music of Richard Wagner. OK. Next. Every year, I and my ilk are sent a very friendly letter by Udo Steingraeber of Steingraeber Pianos of Bayreuth, informing us of events we may find interesting taking place in his factory that summer. This year, I was invited to come and try out the newly-reconditioned Gralsglocke - the 'Grail Bell' - that his great-great uncle had made for Richard Wagner himself for the première of Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1882. Steingraeber set up a factory in Bayreuth in 1852, a full twenty years before Wagner moved to Bayreuth and twenty-four before the festival proper got under way. The fact that you can just turn up to a building bearing the same name as it did around 160 years ago and ask if someone of the same family and name is available is awe-inspiring in itself, but what followed just blew my mind.

Udo Steingraeber came out to meet us. I'd asked him if the Fingernails could come and play the Grail Bell too, to which he'd replied via e-mail that children were almost more welcome than adults, so I knew this bloke had a sense of whimsy I could relate to. He grabbed a key and led us off  to his workshop.

We went over the road and he unlocked the workshop where all Steingraeber hand-made pianos are created. No computers are used in the process; every instrument is created with human hand and hearing, natural judgement, sweat and tears. That's why they're bloody expensive, but hey…Anyway, he showed us the Grail Bell, handed us beaters and explained how to strike the strings. It's basically a piano with four notes, each note consisting of around fifteen strings, twelve to strike and three to vibrate sympathetically. Boulez and Solti both used it for their Parsifal recordings. Mrs. F, the Fingernails and I beat the strings, C - G - A - E - and I, at least, imagined what had happened in the Festspielhaus back in 1882 as this work was being rehearsed for the first time.

Udo showed us around the rest of his studio, pointing out where Wagner and Liszt had been, then ushered us back to the main building in the Friedrichstrasse. It was then that my head began to spin.

Knowing I was a pianist, he said "Come with me; this might interest you". He led us up the grand central staircase and showed us into a room called the Barocksaal, the Baroque Room. "Try this grand, it's rather fun". I sat down. There were three grands in the room, but I started to tinkle the ivories of the one where I was sat. "That was Liszt's piano; we built it for him. He gave many concerts and lessons on it. Let your children play it, too". The Fingernails had a go. "The other two are ones he just used when he was here, but you can play all of them if you want".  Udo Steingraeber left the room and just let a family of perfect strangers play a trio of pianos that had been played by Franz Liszt. I was speechless. As a homage to his generosity, I played the Liebestraum N°3 (Who wouldn't?), but I have to say: at no point in recent history was I more in contact with what it means to be a classical performing artist in Europe in the early twenty-first century as I was that afternoon. We're so surrounded by names and dates that you become rather blasé about the whole thing. Until, it is, that history steps up and grabs you by the bollocks and says: "Right, get this. Understand, now?". And all you can do is nod meekly and say "Yes".

A word to anyone even remotely interested in what I've just written: get yourselves over here and grab it while it's still around.

That's the Gralsglocke on the left. It was supported by four enormous barrel drums, each one corresponding to a note in the Parsifal C - G - A - E sequence.

And that's Udo Steingraeber. Great bloke.