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Two Pianos in One

Two Pianos in One

June 6, 2019

Like every pianist, pianos have their own unique characteristics. Choosing the perfect pairing of musician and instrument can be a challenge, but it can also be a lot of fun. In this podcast, Michael Brown, Adam Golka, and Roman Rabinovich seek the perfect piano on which to record three solo albums of music by Haydn, Beethoven, Medtner, and Ravel.

Produced, narrated, and recorded by Zachary Patten
Mixed by Monte Nickles
Photo: Emily Rund

The Pianos of Tippet Rise

Michael Brown plays excerpts from Medtner: Second Improvisation, Op. 47

Adam Golka plays Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1, “The Dance at the Village Inn”


00:03 MELISSA MOORE: Welcome to the Tippet Rise podcast, brought to you from Tippet Rise Art Center, located on a 12,000 acre ranch in Fishtail, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. I’m Melissa Moore. At Tippet Rise, we celebrate the synergy of art, architecture, music, and nature, out of which we weave our identities. The Tippet Rise podcast explores these connections. Today’s episode, produced by Zachary Patten, takes us through the rigorous process of selecting the perfect piano on which to record music by four composers with different compositional languages.

00:37 ZACHARY PATTEN: In January of 2019, Adam Golka, Michael Brown, and Roman Rabinovich traveled to Tippet Rise Art Center to record three solo piano albums for the England-based First Hand Record Label, featuring music by Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel, and Medtner. But before they begin, something very important has to happen and it’s not simply deciding the dates of the session, or traveling to Montana, or choosing the repertoire, or rehearsing for days and months. It’s something which every pianist who performs at Tippet Rise has to do and it’s always the first thing that’s done upon their arrival. They have to select which piano they will use.

01:25 In another Tippet Rise podcast, Naomi Lewin discusses our pianos in detail, but here’s a quick summary. We have three pianos that we use for concerts and recording sessions. All of them are Steinways. The first is a piano named Seraphina. Originally purchased in 1897 in New York City, it moved to different locations and families on the east coast before being purchased by the piano technician, Tali Mahanor. Tali then restored it with a new sound board, lacquer finish, period-style legs, and new strings. The second piano, called CD-18, was owned and used by both Vladimir Horowitz and Eugene Istomin. It was made in 1940 and has an incredible performance history. The last, and youngest of the Tippet Rise pianos, called Vera, was made in Hamburg in 2016.

02:19 So before Adam, Michael, and Roman arrived, Mike Toia, our piano technician, had all three pianos positioned in the Olivier Music Barn with lids fully opened. They looked like three black, shiny 1950’s Studebakers abstractly positioned within the warm timber framing, and within just a few minutes of their arrival, the three pianists trickled into the hall.

02:40 ADAM GOLKA: How’s it going, Mike? Great to see you!

02:44 ZP: But how does one go about selecting a piano and, more specifically, how do three pianists decide on a single piano to record three albums of aesthetically different repertoire?

02:54 AG: Have you heard about our vow of silence?

02:56 MICHAEL BROWN: We have a system where we’re not going to say our impressions in front of the others.

03:00 AG: We’re going to write it down and then compare, so that it’s fair.

03:04 MB: So we don’t easily manipulate each other.

03:05 AG: Actually, we’re not that manipulative. I’m probably the most manipulative.

03:07 ZP: Michael was first to sit down and audition Vera.

03:21 AG: Wow! It sounds incredible, it’s gorgeous!

03:26 MB: Your turn?

03:28 AG: No, can you play a little bit of all three a little bit?

03:30 MB: Do you want to hear the same things on all three, or should we not talk about it?

03:32 AG: No, just play, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to observe a little.

03:36 MB: Okay.

03:37 ZP: Michael began playing a variety of the repertoire from his album of Ravel and Medtner, while Adam listened intently for nuances of the piano’s tone and timbre. Michael and Adam have performed at Tippet Rise before, but this was Roman’s first experience.

04:09 MB: Roman is coming in now? We have to get Roman’s first impressions. You want to get it?

04:15 AG: I’ll get it, you play!

04:18 ROMAN RABINOVICH: Oh my God, wow! This is insane.

04:25 MB: It’s insane.

04:42 RR: Wow!

04:44 ZP: Michael moved on to CD-18 and Seraphina, while Adam and Roman carefully listened. But for what, exactly, are they listening? What are the their expectations? What are the qualities that will advance one great piano over another. And more importantly, will they all agree?

05:08 RR: Choosing a piano is very personal. Each piano is like a person. Each piano has a completely different character and completely different sound, colors, harmonics. Everything is very different.

05:29 MB: Okay, someone else want to play?

05:32 AG: Sure.

05:33 ZP: Adam’s approach was methodic. Play the exact same passage at each piano. He began with the adagio from Beethoven’s 5th sonata in C minor on Vera. Followed by CD-18. And lastly, Seraphina. Because of the way Adam, Michael, and Roman decided to be producers for each other’s recordings, as well as the limited amount of time they had to record, three albums in seven days, it was crucial to choose just one piano.

06:08 Moving on, Adam continued to audition the pianos with stylistically different music, this selection from Beethoven’s D major sonata No. 7. The room began to fill with sound from Beethoven’s highly charged musical lines, and then, in stark contrast, the more introspective character of Beethoven was put to the test.

06:31 Then, the atmosphere in the hall changed to an almost reverential state. Beethoven’s honest and pristine composition beckoned everyone’s complete and undivided attention. Then Adam asked a question that would throw a monkey wrench into the whole equation.

06:51 AG: Is that the New York action? That’s the Renner action, oh interesting.

06:56 ZP: But more on that later.

06:58 AG: Roman, do you want to play a little?

06:59 RR: Sure.

07:00 ZP: Taking a cue from Adam, Roman continued in the same manner, examining passages from Haydn at each piano, curating the selections to explore each piano’s reaction to tempo, touch, dynamic difference, and lyrical qualities.

07:19 AG: Should we check the other action on this piano?

07:21 ZP: A piano action is the mechanical part of the piano that transfers the motion of the fingers from the keys to the hammers, which strike the strings.

07:29 RR: This particular piano has two actions, a New York action and a Hamburg action.

07:36 ZP: It consists of over 9,000 parts which need to work in perfect unity with the unique touch of each musician.

07:41 RR: And the Hamburg action is much more immediate, vibrant, alive and has an amazing sparkle in the upper register.

07:52 MB: Should we write down on a piece of paper a couple of thoughts?

07:56 AG: Or phone notes?

07:57 MB: And just read the notes to each other. Is that good?

07:58 AG: Yes.

08:01 ZP: Moving from piano to piano, Roman examined touch and immediate response while Michael and Adam secretly quantified and transcribed the larger acoustic brilliance.

08:10 RR: They all have such amazing qualities.

08:12 MB: Don’t say anything! Don’t say anything! We’ll put it down. Sorry, Roman, you can say whatever you want to.

08:20 RR: This is quite something.

08:21 MB: It’s going to be a tough one. Do you want to try it, or do you want to keep going, since you’re trying?

08:25 RR: I’ve been playing for awhile, but sure.

08:27 MB: Well, why don’t you finish up? Then Adam, then me, and then let’s talk.

08:34 ZP: As Roman finished his round of auditioning the pianos, Mike Toia spent the next 10 minutes changing the CD-18 piano action from the Hamburg to the New York.

08:41 AG: Can I try that?

08:44 RR: Yea! So this is New York action now?

08:48 ZP: Changing the action creates significant sonic and tactile changes in a number of ways.

08:50 RR: Do you know of any other pianos that have two actions and act as two different voices in one body?

09:02 MB: Like Florestan and Eusebius?

09:05 RR: That’s right!

09:06 AG: It is like Florestan and Eusebius!

09:07 ZP: Florestan and Eusebius are Robert Schumann’s two imaginary characters which he created to exemplify the duality of his own persona, or two voices in one body, as Roman said. Florestan, the impulsive and spontaneous and Eusebius, the introspective and thoughtful.

09:24 AG: I know Christian Zimmerman does it with, I think he has four actions, if I’m not mistaken, for his piano.

09:33 RR: And they are all completely different?

09:36 AG: Yeah! I think one is for Bach and one is for… I don’t know, I’m not an expert. I shouldn’t talk about this without knowing for sure, but still, it’s an amazing and inspiring thing.

09:47 ZP: In the liner notes from his recording of Schubert’s piano sonatas, Zimmerman explains that the custom design of a new action allows the hammer to strike the string in a slightly different location than a modern grand. The result is a unique blend of overtones which approximate how Schubert initially heard his music.

10:09 The New York action, or second voice, within CD-18 is put to the test and compared to Seraphina and Vera. Adam examines Beethoven’s agile and punctuated Sonata no. 6. But how do each of these pianos fare with Beethoven’s extreme juxtaposition of serene lyricism and powerful depth?

10:53 AG: Hm, Okay.

10:55 ZP: Following Adam, Michael created a juxtaposition of his own and Beethoven’s massive chords were replaced by the resonance of a single note, which flowed into the exquisite sound world of Ravel.

11:26 By now, Michael, Adam, and Roman have, in great detail, examined the sonorous and tactile qualities unique to Vera, Seraphina, and CD-18. They have also explored how the pianos respond to the unique compositional languages of Haydn, Beethoven, and Ravel. They examined single notes, quiet music, lyrical music, fast and percussive music, loud music, and massive chords.

12:32 Three musicians, three pianos and a second action, four composers, seven days to record three albums. Selecting “the one” piano is not easy.

12:43 In the spirit of reality tv, Adam asks.

12:49 AG: Is there one that we would eliminate?

12:51 ZP: If you’re not exactly sure of what you want, try to define what you don’t want.

12:54 MB: Let’s talk at this point. We can keep trying later, but we’ve tried a lot, I think.

12:59 RR: Yea, trust the gut.

13:02 AG: But the action was a game changer, that’s the problem. I was sure until you changed the action.

13:09 MB: So, I’m guessing, you were sure about this one?

13:14 ZP: Michael points to Vera.

13:18 AG: Yes.

13:19 MB: Until he put that one in and then you fell in love with that action?

13:20 ZP: The NY action in CD-18

13:20 AG: Yes.

13:21 MB: And I’m in the same boat.

13:22 AG: Roman, can you tell us a little bit about what you were thinking?

13:26 RR: I was thinking about these two.

13:29 ZP: Roman also Points to CD-18 and Vera.

13:28 AG: Okay, so Seraphina is clearly out for us, right?

13:30 ZP: But why is Seraphina eliminated?

13:31 AG: Only because she wouldn’t have been right for some of the repertoire we were doing.

13:36 RR: Just because of the action, it was slightly slower and not as immediate.

13:41 AG: Yep. And for Haydn it certainly wouldn’t have been right. Hit and miss for our repertoire.

13:45 ZP: Mike Toia packed up and rolled Seraphina away, and we were down to two pianos, Vera and CD-18.

13:51 RR: Can I play a little bit, because I only played like two minutes on the new action.

13:57 ZP: Roman continued to explore Haydn’s electric lines on both remaining pianos, concluding at CD-18.

14:04 AG: I don’t think that one is going to be right for Haydn.

14:07 RR: Yea, it’s like going through mud or something.

14:09 ZP: Michael turns to Roman.

14:10 MB: When you played the D Major opening on this one.

14:12 ZP: On Vera.

14:19 MB: I thought it was phenomenal. I thought it was fantastic! And I think your Haydn sounds so great on this piano. I think aspects of his Beethoven work amazingly well on that piano.

14:29 ZP: Adam’s Beethoven on CD-18.

14:33 MB: When you played the Opus. 10 No. 2 last movement, I was slightly more engaged with the sound for that movement on this piano here.

14:46 ZP: On Vera.

14:47 AG: What about Pathetique? Well, I didn’t try it with this action, let me try it now.

14:51 ZP: Adam tries the Pathetique on CD-18, with the New York action and then switches to Vera.

15:02 MB: I think it sounds gorgeous.

15:04 AG: It’s pretty nice! I’m not going to lie.

15:06 MB: I think for all three, this is the piano that works for all three,

15:09 ZP: It seems like we might be coming to a decision and this isn’t an easy task. To go back and forth between pianos, analyzing and scrutinizing every minute detail, trying to keep track of it all, it’s challenging.

15:21 AG: This one, even in the singing stuff, has this shimmering quality that I really love, that the others don’t quite have. It’s like shimmering. That one has this gorgeous warm tone.

15:31 MB: Rich, fat.

15:33 AG: It’s so rich and fat. But it’s a little bit more direct, it’s a little more like this is the sound. And this one has this mistiness to it or something. It cries a little bit.

15:42 ZP: So which is more ideal? Vera’s shimmering and misty crying sound or CD-18’s warm, rich, fat, and direct tone? This is what Roman alluded to earlier when he said each piano is like a unique person, with completely different character, color, harmonics, and personality.

15:58 RR: Maybe this one is more versatile for all three?

16:02 MB: I think it’s the only one that works for all three.

16:03 ZP: At this point we could have just called it, packed up CD-18, and spent a week recording on Vera. And while Adam played, Michael and Roman spoke even further of Vera’s versatility. How it handled Ravel and Medtner, how the Haydn sparkled, the Beethoven shimmered, and how the simple ease of playing Vera would help maintain energy levels over the course of a long week. But these musicians are more thorough than that. And these pianos make it almost too difficult to decide.

16:34 MB: The movement works really well on this piano.

16:39 AG: I don’t think we can go wrong with either of these two. What about the intro of the Pathetique? Any impressions or was it fine on both?

16:46 MB: It was glorious on both.

16:48 AG: Like stuff like this. I kind of like this more there.

16:50 ZP: Adam continues to play on Vera.

15:53 AG: But this is beautiful here. You don’t get quite the.

17:01 ZP: And quickly switches to CD-18.

17:06 MB: Yea, that’s what this piano is so amazing at, you know, those types of passages.

17:19 AG: Oh! This is important, what about this?

17:20 ZP: While Adam played through several iconic Beethoven themes, Roman and Michael were more convinced by the unique sound of CD-18. The huge dynamic range and natural richness. As music history has shown, Beethoven can leave us completely bewildered.

17:48 MB: I’m freaking out!

17:54 RR: The last bit you played sounded more convincing on this piano.

17:59 AG: I have to say, the more I’m playing, the more I’m starting to feel at home with this one. I am. I’m not going to lie.

18:05 ZP: Adam is starting to be more convinced that CD-18 with the New York action is the better pairing with the compositional language of Beethoven. Michael and Roman are in agreement, but what do they think about Michael’s Medtner and Ravel? Michael sits down at CD-18.

18:25 RR: That’s good.

AG: Sounds really good.

18:28 MB: I’m not going to lie, I don’t mean to make this confusing, but I really think the Beethoven sounds incredible on this piano.

18:35 AG: Yea, I’m more and more convinced that’s the case.

18:36 MB: But I kind of think the Ravel sounds better on this piano.

18:39 AG: I actually, the Medtner sounded better on that piano at first, I didn’t hear it with the other action, but I actually kind of like the Ravel here.

18:46 MB: You did?

18:48 AG: I did.

18:49 ZP: Just to clear things up, Michael and Adam both think that Beethoven works best on CD-18, but, for now, disagree on which piano best expresses Ravel. Michael thinks the Ravel worked on Vera, whereas Adam thinks the Medtner worked on Vera but Ravel was best expressed on CD-18. And At Roman’s request, Michael continues.

19:08 RR: Play repeated notes.

19:10 MB: He can fix the repeated notes.

19:12 RR: That’s a consideration, right?

19:14 ZP: Again, the ease of playing Vera was discussed. It’s almost too bad that both pianos can’t be used, because they are each incredible options, but in order to accomplish the week’s goals, only one can be selected.

19:29 MB: So I guess it all comes down to philosophy. What kind of men do we want to be? Risk takers, bold?

19:37 RR; Are you an explorer?

19:37 AG: What makes a man, Mr. Brown?

19:43 MB: Do we want to drive something that’s a little bit harder to control?

19:44 RR: Without a license.

19:50 MB: But maybe at the end we can get a greater reward. Do we want to conquer a small island or an whole continent?

19:55 AG: We said that we were not going to manipulate.

19:57 ZP: We began this entire process with the vow of silence and Adam, Michael, and Roman made an agreement to not sway each other’s opinions.

20:04 AG: That’s right, actually, do you remember in the beginning when we were doing the first selection, we actually made a deal with each other because we didn’t want to influence each other.

20:16 MB: Because I’m easily malleable and able to be manipulated in life, just generally speaking.

20:22 RR: Full disclosure.

20:25 MB: If they start planting ideas to me about their personal feelings, there’s the empathetic bone that might want to please them.

20:33 ZP: With these pianos, it’s difficult to keep your opinion quiet.

20:37 MB: Come on, guys. This piano is gorgeous.

20:39 AG: It is.

20:43 MB: Roman is not going to be happy on this.

20:44 RR: That’s not true!

20:45 MB: Are you warming up to this?

20:46 RR: I mean, I’m open to it.

20:50 MB: You said the Medtner sounded more clear, but I thought it had a nice feeling on this piano too.

20:57 AG: I like it, actually.

20:59 MB: I felt good on both. It’s hard to decide.

21:01 AG: The thing about that one is the bass is nice. For Beethoven, this one is a little pretty in my opinion, because I wanted the fortissimos to be (groan).

21:13 RR: I think this bass is, it’s good bass.

21:20 AG: It is, but it’s much prettier.

21:22 ZP: Michael, Adam, and Roman have been about as thorough as possible with this selection process, they talked about the quality of each piano’s bass, repeated notes, and difference in register and color. They also discussed mic placement and proximity and at this point it could go either way,

21:39 AG: Philosophically speaking, it’s a question, of course we have different repertoire, but I think any of them could work with both pianos. So maybe it’s also a philosophical question of what message are we trying to send out?

21:51 MB: That is what I’m thinking. I’m thinking in a year and a half from now, when someone is clicking, in their underwear, on Spotify, to our recordings.

21:59 RR: That’s a very specific picture you’re painting.

22:03 MB: What sound are they going to be more drawn to? I was actually thinking in a practical way, as three relatively youngish pianists, what’s more helpful to us? We don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot with the wrong sound, if it’s misinterpreted.

22:18 ZP: In order to prevent being stuck with a “wrong sound,” Adam chimed in with an idea.

22:22 AG: Hey, well we have two actions, so if we really need something or other, we could probably swap the actions and see if that will provide it.

22:31 ZP: The two pianos in one idea opened up the potential for extra musical possibilities and would prevent getting stuck with the wrong sound. And the Hamburg action offered a lighter and more articulate option.

22:42 AG: Roman, I think you should consider using this action for -

22:46 RR: Fast parts?

22:48 AG: I might even use it for this.

22:54 MB: It’s a totally different experience.

23:05 AG: Actually, this would be good.

23:07 MB: I think it’s great!

23:08 AG: Because it pops more.

23:12 ZP: Having the flexibility of two different actions to record the very different compositional voices of Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel, and Medtner is a great advantage.

23:19 MB: Let’s do this one, guys.

23:20 RR: FIne.

23:22 ZP: The final decision by this trio of friends was to record with CD-18 and to take advantage of two pianos in one.

23:29 MB: I feel good about this dual action thing we have going here.

23:33 MIKE TOIA: Yea, that helps a lot.

23:34 MB: Especially for Roman’s sprightly movements.

23:36 RR: Yea, it’s piano in transition.

23:42 AG: And I think we were all hellbent on using Vera before we heard CD-18 with the New York action. We were going to eliminate CD-18 and then we heard the New York action.

23:52 MB: And when you played the Opus 18, No. 2 last movement, I was like, “Wow!” you know, something sparkled in the room, where I knew that had to be the piano.

24:04 ZP: Their patience, thoroughness, and attention to detail are certainly commendable and their idea to take turns producing three albums in one week was ambitious. But, together, they created a perfectly harmonious chord, even if Michael shortchanged his own capacity for manipulation.

24:21 AG: See, and you influenced us! You, actually, kind of were the leader in that decision, I must say.

24:26 MB: I was.

24:30 AG: Yea, you were, you really were! I’m proud of you.

24:32 MB: Thanks, pal.

24:33 AG: Okay.

24:40 ZP: Our most sincere thanks goes out to Adam Golka, Michael Brown, and Roman Rabinovich. Roman returns to Tippet Rise in our upcoming fourth season, performing music by Saint-Sëans, Ligeti, Schubert, and Brahms. We at Tippet Rise hope that you all will also be on the lookout for these recordings and performances and, until next time, thank you for listening to the Tippet Rise Podcast.