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Selecting a Steinway

Selecting a Steinway

Our CEO, Euan Murdoch reflects upon his recent trip to the Steinway factory in Hamburg to select the Centre's new Model D concert grand piano.

As a cellist, I am used to the idea of a fine musical instrument improving with age. It is well-known even outside musical circles that many of the world’s most exquisite violins, violas and cellos are in their prime several hundred years after they were built. So, it may come as a surprise to read that as we approach Melbourne Recital Centre’s 10th anniversary next year that we have already embarked on the difficult journey to find worthy replacements for three of the most important parts of the Centre’s musical soul; the Steinway grand pianos that live in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and the Primrose Potter Salon.

These superb instruments (two Model Ds and a Model C) were specially selected from the Steinway factory in Hamburg by pianists Piers Lane and Stephen McIntyre prior to the Centre’s opening in 2009, and have given voice over the past decade to some of the greatest pianists from around the world, including Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt, Garrick Ohlsson, Imogen Cooper, Stephen Hough, Joyce Yang, Nikolai Demidenko, Daniil Trifonov, and Nelson Freire. They have also met the exacting musical demands of many of Australia’s finest pianists, including Caroline Almonte, Ian Munro, Benjamin Martin, Timothy Young, Ronald Farren-Price, and of course Stephen McIntyre and Piers Lane.

Each with more than 12,000 individual components, many of them moving and subject to wear-and-tear, the Centre’s Steinways have spent the past decade in the expert care of master technician, Ulrich Gerhartz, Steinway’s Director of Concert and Artist’s Services. Considered the preeminent maestro of the piano technician world, Ulrich is based in the United Kingdom but travels extensively to ensure the pianos under his care are kept in immaculate condition.

Although our pianos here at the Centre are some of the most carefully maintained instruments in the world, the precise tolerances required of their thousands of moving parts means that, much like an elite racing car, a piano needs to be fairly young to perform at its very best. And so, it was with a great sense of responsibility that I flew to the Steinway showroom in Hamburg in September this year to meet with Ulrich and Piers to help select our new piano.

The first of the Centre’s three Steinways to be retired will be the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall’s much-loved D 936. A very special instrument noted for its incredible warmth of tone and uniquely expressive colour pallet, D 936 has been nicknamed the “Brahms” since its earliest days at the Centre. Described by Garrick Ohlsson as “A glorious piano…particularly the una corda voicing”, and by Andrew Tyson as “one of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever played”, D 936 has been the overwhelming favourite of concert pianists for playing solo recitals. Piers particularly noted that when he first selected it 10 years ago that it is a piano which “provides you with ideas as an artist which you may not have imagined possible.”

These were the hard-to-define but critical musical qualities we had in mind when Piers, Ulrich and I arrived to an incredibly warm welcome at Steinway’s Hamburg showroom. As just one example of their incredible attention to detail, they had even put up an Australian flag for us!

As a representative of Steinway, Ulrich was with us to advise on technical matters. Piers had the job of putting each of the seven new Steinway Ds that they had pre-selected for us through its paces, and I had enviable task (but weighty responsibility) of providing Piers with an extra set of ears. (I also had to bring the cheque book!)

The actual selection process took place over the course of a very long day, with Piers assessing each of the seven pianos not only for how it sounded but also for how its delicate mechanical actions responded to a wide variety of different touches. Although all Steinway pianos are built to incredibly exacting standards, because their soundboards (the "heart" of a piano) are made of wood, each instrument has its own unique character, strengths and quirks. One of the reasons that we were so lucky to have Piers help us with this selection – aside from his formidable pianism – is that he is intimately familiar with the unique acoustic properties of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and, as Piers and I worked our way from one end of the showroom to the other, we had to make some very difficult choices. 
Some instruments I remember struck us as particularly beautiful but somehow just not quite right as a suitable replacement for our beloved D 936.

The rather heart-breaking tradition for selecting a piano at Steinway is to, one-by-one, close the lids of the pianos that do not quite fit the bill until only one instrument remains with its wing-like lid dramatically raised. And, I am pleased to say, at the end of the day one particularly wonderful piano, serial number D 976, absolutely stood out to us both. Warm but clear, responsive but not twitchy, you could also almost say that this wonderful instrument chose us as much as we chose it.

Three months have now gone by since that memorable September day in Hamburg but I am thrilled to say that on Monday 17 December the D 976 will arrive here at Melbourne Recital Centre in its carefully packed shipping crate. Taking the place of D 936 – which is heading off to its new home in the private residence of its new owners, who are great music lovers and friends to the Centre – D 976 will have a month to acclimatise to its new surroundings until early January 2019, when Ulrich will visit from London to give it its first full set-up, service, and tune ready for its first performances during our birthday celebrations on 7 and 8 of February.

I know that all of us here at Melbourne Recital Centre look forward to the many wonderful concerts that D 976 will help to bring to life over the next 10 years!

How you can play a part

The arrival of D 976 marks only the beginning of our major project to replace or augment the existing Steinway pianos here at Melbourne Recital Centre. In late 2019 we hope to be able to select a new Steinway Model C (slightly smaller than the full-sized Model D) to match the existing Model C that we use in the Primrose Potter Salon. 

This new instrument will enhance the musical possibilities of the Primrose Potter Salon in the following ways:

  • Allow for the presentation of works from the extensive two-piano repertoire on matching instruments
  • Provide artists with a choice of Steinway pianos for recitals in the Primrose Potter Salon, just as a choice of Model D pianos is provided for performances in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
  • Provide a Steinway piano for use in the Primrose Potter Salon that is fewer than 10 years old, ensuring that the high reputation of Melbourne Recital Centre is maintained among local and international artists and audiences
  • Allow the Centre to offer the use of the older Model C instrument to schools and student groups, whilst ensuring that the new instrument is preserved for professional artists

The acquisition of this new Model C represents an investment by the Centre in the order of $250,000. In order to help us achieve this significant sum, we hope to form a circle of committed and enthusiastic pianophiles from our community to support this project. So far, I am thrilled to say that we have managed to raise more than $35,000 from generous members of our new Piano Giving Circle and we look forward to sharing with them the exciting story of this new instrument’s selection and subsequent arrival here at the Centre.

To find out more about how you can join the Piano Giving Circle and make a real contribution to the world-class standing of Melbourne Recital Centre, please contact Alistaire Bowler, Philanthropy Manager, on (03) 9207 2653 or

We would be honoured by your support.