NEWPORT, R.I. — Somewhere near the heart of a classical performer’s art is a deceptively simple assignment: to imagine an ideal sound in one’s mind, and then to realize it on an instrument.
But oh, the details! The sound in one’s mind is by definition perfect. But the sound that comes out of your piano? And yes, it is often professional pianists, more than most others, who must cope with the added challenges of routinely playing on instruments that are not their own. Even players with the most well-honed techniques can struggle with mundane difficulties: tuning, the action of a sticky key, the sensitivity of wood reacting to changes in weather — in short, all the physical limitations of a complex mechanical object whose basic design was conceived in a distant century and, since then, essentially frozen in time.
The pianist Gergely Bogányi grew up in Hungary and in Finland, and, by his own description, experienced the gap between the sound in his mind and what he could produce at the keyboard with a special bitterness. “I was not spoiled by good pianos around me,” he says, “so I was basically always suffering.”
Bogányi took the unlikely step of trying to address the problem, not just by buying a better instrument but by starting from scratch. Over the last decade, working with a team of engineers, designers, and manufacturing specialists, he has rethought and redesigned the modern piano. The result is the new “Bogányi piano.” This week the pianist and a team of European colleagues came to the Newport Music Festival to introduce the instrument, presenting its first North American performances.
Visually the piano is something to behold, with a sleek black curvature that has earned it the nickname “bat piano.” Its footprint is roughly similar to that of a conventional concert grand, but it has no third leg, lending it from certain angles the illusion of floating in air. The piano is manufactured outside of Budapest in a plant that also produces components for the interiors of luxury cars. Which makes sense, as this piano looks a bit like what might come off the lab bench after splicing the DNA of a Steinway and a Lamborghini.
Many aspects of the piano’s mechanics have been rethought, but the heart of the innovation lies, as it were, under the hood. It is built around a carbon-fiber soundboard instead of a wooden one, with the aim of creating what the marketing team describes as “a more stable, crisp and clear sound” — one that, it is claimed, remains steady despite changes in humidity or temperature.
It’s well and good to read about such things, but something else entirely to hear the piano in action. On Thursday morning in the ballroom at the Elms, Bogányi played an all-Chopin program for a packed crowd of curious festival listeners. The weather gods even did their part for the experiment by serving up a stiflingly muggy day.
From the opening B-minor Scherzo, the instrument’s sound was notable for a pellucid clarity in its upper registers and for an unusual power in its tolling, clarion bass notes. Up and down the keyboard, the sound materialized at the start of notes with a forthright ping, as if the signal to noise ratio were higher than typical. The overall quantity of sound was also impressive, threatening at times to overpower the room and sparking, at least in this listener, a keen curiosity to hear this turbocharged piano in front of a full orchestra. One also wondered, in particular, how it would sound in repertoire of a modernity closer to its own.
For his part, Bogányi played his Chopin selections with sensitivity and Romantic sweep. It was, thankfully, clear that for him the new instrument remains a means to older musical ends. All of this said, with a price tag of $300,000 and a culture among classical musicians that remains reflexively suspicious of modern instruments — even those made to look old — it’s difficult to picture the Bogányi becoming commonplace. But one has to give credit to the imagination and sheer audacity behind this project. And at this initial hearing, the crowd responded in that spirit, with an ovation clearly directed at more than just a fine performance.
Presented by Newport Music Festival. At the Elms, Newport, R.I., July 14