During the 19th century, Viennese pianos were noted for their lightness of touch and tone and British pianos for a more robust build, touch, and sound; French pianos lay somewhere between. Within those parameters of local taste, each maker had a distinctive style and a proprietary bag of tricks. For one example, Mozart’s favorite maker, Walter, would leave his soundboards outside all winter; the ones that cracked went into the stove.
From old instruments, performers on modern pianos can get important insights into the sound image that Mozart, Schubert, et al., were aiming for. But music from the 18th and 19th centuries doesn’t just sound different now than on the original instruments; some of it can’t even be played as written on modern pianos. One example is the double-octave glissando in the last movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata. With the light action and shallow key dip of a period Viennese piano you can plant your thumb and little finger on the octave and slide to the left, and there it is. Given the much heavier action and deeper key dip of a modern piano, if you tried that today you’d dislocate something.
A theme Michael Frederick often returns to is standardization. Why should everything be the same? Why should three or four piano makers, however splendid, especially the Steinways that inhabit the majority of concert halls, dominate the scene? It’s like the beer situation 30 years ago, when you had about a half-dozen standard brands to choose from. Now we have myriad brews flowing around the land—the way it was in the 19th century.
A fascinating look at the difference in the way music was heard in the 18th and 19th centuries, and today. Has some great audio samples where you can really hear the difference.