The piano was parked across the room like a sleek, black limousine. It occupied nearly a third of the room and gleamed expensively in the light of the chandeliers. It was a Fazioli, the most expensive piano in the world, beautifully, exquisitely crafted, a triumph of design and modern piano technology. He eyed it suspiciously, and the vast, shining minotaur glared back at him, challenging him: “Tocchilo se osate. Touch me, if you dare”, it seemed to say. He had never played a Fazioli before; indeed, had never even been close to one, and, until now, never had any inclination to try one. Its reputation went before it: some people raved about its crystal clear tone quality, that once played, one would never want another piano, ever…. Others that it was just over-engineered Italian histrionics; nothing more than a show-piece, an instrument without heritage or integrity. A piano for the Ferrari owner who valued image and exclusivity above ultimate usability……..
……the sound was amazing, flooding the large room with an absolute purity and luminescence he had not encountered before in a piano. A sound of effortless clarity and depth. The treble was brightly translucent, the middle register had a viola-like mellowness, the bass enormous. The further down the register he went, the notes began to blossom, then growl, now swelling, like an organ, the sound rising from the great belly of the instrument and pouring into the elegant music room. The tone was brilliant and rich, right across the entire register, the touch perfectly even, and Stephen realised that he had never before, not even on the most impeccably set up concert Steinway, played an action that had better control. There was no forgiving middle ground in between with this instrument. It would, he knew, be impossible to conceal the slightest unevenness of touch or rhythm. There would be nowhere to hide….”
Like the protagonist of my novel, I’d never played a Fazioli – until now – though I’d heard it in concert, at the Wigmore and the Royal Festival Hall, on both occasions played by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. And on both occasions, I disliked the piano’s sound. In the relatively intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall, the Fazioli concert grand, which, at just over 3 metres, is even larger than a full-size Steinway Model D, was just too big. Its treble was strident, its bass booming. It dominated the music (Bach and Chopin) more than it should have done. Even in a hall as big as RFH, the voice of the Fazioli was still too big. (A pianist (who likes Fazioli) argued with me that it was not the piano, but the pianist who was responsible for the sound.)
The debate continues, and Fazioli, like Marmite, divides opinion. I decided the only way to settle the debate in my own mind was to try a Fazioli myself. As it happens, Jaques Samuels Pianos, on London’s Edgware Road, is an agent for Fazioli in the UK; even better, they have a Fazioli in one of their rehearsal rooms at the moment.
Fazioli is not a long-established piano maker, like Steinway or Bosendorfer. The company was founded in 1981, by Paolo Fazioli, a pianist and engineer, whose aim was to create the most beautiful, perfect and highly-crafted piano possible. The factory is located in the northeast of Italy, in a region famous for its ancient and prestigious tradition in woodworking. The soundboards of Fazioli pianos are made from red spruce from the Val de Fiemme (Antonio Stradivari used the same red spruce to produce his violins). Each Fazioli piano is “hand made” by a team of workers, and only around 100 pianos are produced each year.
Paolo Fazioli’s family are furniture makers, but instead of going into the family firm when he came of age, he went to music conversatoire. However, having obtained his diploma, he realised he would never hack it as a professional pianist, and so he then achieved a degree in engineering before joining the family firm. But he never lost interest in the piano and became increasingly dissatisfied to find that the pianos he played were not especially well made, neither mechanically nor musically, and he became convinced that he could do better. He consulted experts in acoustics, metal foundry, harmonics and woodworking; he did his research and silenced his detractors, and by 1980 Fazioli and his team had produced their first prototype. He now believes his pianos are the best. His overriding criteria are as follows
- To produce grand and concert grand pianos exclusively, aiming for the highest quality with no concern for large production
- Not to imitate any other existing pianos, rather to create an original sound
- To hand-craft each piano individually using time honored traditional methods combined with the latest technological advances
- To strive constantly to improve the piano by using cutting edge technology. [source: Wikipedia]
They are certainly the biggest and most expensive on the market today, and the demand for an instrument with greater power and richness to be used in larger concert halls inspired the creation of the F308 model, the longest piano available, of any brand, at 10 feet. Fazioli pianos are endorsed by a number of top international artists, including Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt and Louis Lortie.
I did not check to see which model was in the rehearsal room at JS Pianos, but it was not a monster, not by any means (I think it was a F183 model). A quick burst of Schubert’s E flat Impromptu confirmed what I’d read about the Fazioli’s action and touch: extremely even across the entire register, if a touch heavy for my liking. It felt “easy” to play, presumably because of the ultra-fine engineering in it, but one had the sense sometimes of playing at one remove from it. Difficult to explain, but my student, who played her exam pieces on it, remarked on this sensation as well. Listening to it, it had an incredibly rich bass, full-bodied and chocolatey. The middle registers were also very pleasing, with a smooth mellowness. But it was the upper register that bothered both of us. As a listener, it was just too bright; even when playing quietly, the sound was too much, and at one point, my student Sarah commented that it actually hurt her ears. (This was my experience when I heard Angela Hewitt play a Fazioli at the Wigmore; interestingly, the two friends who were with me on that occasion, and who are both hard of hearing, commented that the treble was too “strident”, brash even.)
The Rachmaninov G minor Étude-Tableaux was definitely more successful than the Bach D minor Concerto BWV974: the Rachmaninov dwells quite a lot in the lower registers, and the richness of the Fazioli’s bass voice made for a very atmospheric reading. I had to remind myself not to push the treble too much, even in the forte and mezzo-forte passages. The Liszt Sonetto 104 also came across well, again benefitting from the bass richness, but the Mozart Rondo in A minor K511 was less successful (admittedly, I was tired when I came to play it at the end of our session).
I am not sure I would want to own a Fazioli: it seemed almost too perfect for my liking, and so impeccably engineered that it actually came across as rather false. It was almost like the world’s best digital piano, and without a long heritage, like Steinway or Bechstein, it lacks integrity, in my view (maybe after Fazioli has been in production for 100 years, it will have gained that heritage). It’s really beautiful, but it has no soul. You don’t have to work too hard at it, to make it louder, or quieter: because of the way it is set up, it responds instantly to the touch. Strangely, this aspect of it irritated me: I like to feel I am “working” at the sound, but I don’t want a piano that it is just “raw sound”. Despite the hard acoustic of my piano room, even my little Yahama has a sweeter treble than the Fazioli, while my teacher’s Bechstein has the most mellifluously cantabile treble, a really lovely sound (if a rather floppy touch).
However, I am glad we had the opportunity to play a Fazioli, and it has certainly helped to inform my thoughts about what kind of grand piano I will choose when I come to buy one (hopefully next year).
Jaques Samuels Pianos
Link to the Original