With a superb Steinway D concert grand piano arriving at Shed Arts this week, we talk to Tetbury-based pianist composer Jan Vriend about the interplay between artist and instrument

By Brecon Quaddy, Shed Arts volunteer

Many years ago, I visited Yamaha’s piano factory at Hamamatsu, Japan. Not, sadly, the one the grand pianos come from but its cousin down the road, where standard ‘everyman’ Japanese household upright pianos are mass-produced.

After watching for a while as part-built pianos scurried around the works on robot trucks, we walked out on to the quay beside the factory. There, baulks of exotic hardwood slumbered in a water-filled dock in the spring sunshine. We were told that these were not destined for the workshop behind us. These timbers would mature – perhaps for years – until they were perfectly ripe for selection as raw material for one of Yamaha’s top concert instruments.

The contrast between the din inside the upright factory and the serenity of the timber dock made us feel we were looking down into a hatchery for future mythical beasts.

But what about the far-subtler contrast between different makes and types of concert instrument?

We asked the Shed’s very own ‘mythical beast’, Jan Vriend, who has been responsible for attracting performers of the calibre of James and Joy Lisney, and Tony Hymas to the Cotswolds’ newest performance venue, how his own Yamaha C3 differs from a Steinway D.

“I love my Yamaha,” he says, adding that it was the best instrument he could afford at the time (almost 10 years ago) to replace a baby Förster he had worn out.

“But the C3 is a rather brash instrument and its action requires very auspicious control, especially the quieter you want to play. When I played at the Shed on 13 April, although it was perfectly capable to fill the space of the hall, its sound was very different from the concert grand.”

Jan Vriend playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Opus 48 No. 1 at the Goods Shed on 13 April 2017
(Watch on YouTube)

Jan explains that the concert grand has much longer strings from the bottom up and therefore creates more resonance throughout the soundbox of the piano, which is much bigger as well, of course.

“Resonance is not only increased by the size but in particular by the extra harmonics that are activated in the lower strings. This quickly becomes rather technical but, in essence, both the size of the piano’s interior and the extra length of the overall strings provide extra resonance.”

Although the size of the piano doesn’t affect its loudness, he says, it does affect the distance the sound travels in a space. That’s why big concert halls need a piano like the Steinway.

“Besides, the action (or mechanism) of the Steinway is much more delicate, allowing for a high level of tone control from the keys. It’s this subtlety of touch that controls the movement of the hammers against the strings in order to produce a range of tone colours; not only from quiet to loud, but from delicate to rough.

“Now, no two Steinways are the same because they are hand made and depend on a great number of variables in the enormous complexity of the mechanism. But generally Steinway’s reputation is based on its high level of precision and attention to detail, years of expertise and durability of all its parts and materials,” Jan concludes.

Those wishing to experience the dynamics of a Steinway in the hands of a master musician at Tetbury’s Arts Centre only need wait until Saturday 24 June, when James Lisney (below) performs a programme featuring Schubert, Grieg and Chopin at 7.30pm.

For more information about the recital and to be sure of obtaining tickets, visit the event page on the Shed’s website. Tickets are also available at Tetbury Tourist Information Centre and there may be some still available on the door on the night.

Thank you, Jan, for taking the time to talk to us. The Steinway D has been kindly loaned to the Shed by Coach House Pianos of Swansea.