For more than 30 years, Stephen Paulello has systematically studied all the components of the piano, including the instruments of previous eras. But as a pianist dreaming of more complex and expressive sonorities, he doesn’t content himself with a cult of the past. Instead, he has often used his findings to challenge generally accepted ideas. His unique grand pianos are constructed to order in his workshop-laboratory 100 kms south of Paris, where there is also a recording studio. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell has interviewed Stephen Paulello about his visions and achievements.
Piano Street: Many a professional and famous musician have spoken of you, and your instruments are frequently used for recordings. Vienna has ordered one Opus 102 instrument from you. What can you tell us about this ”sounding” part of the Stephen Paulello, for those who cannot come and visit your workshop in Villethierry outside Paris?
Stephen Paulello: An Opus 102 was sold to a Viennese dealer who would like to sell it to a great concert hall or recording studio in Vienna. The Opus 102 has a great equality of sound in all registers, a great power, a great dynamic, an infinite variety of colours, great clarity, very deep bass, very bright treble, an exceptional sustain that allows a true legato. However, it is difficult to describe the sound of a piano in words. It is better to come to us and taste this instrument. This experience usually does not leave one indifferent.
PS: Instrument makers are artists with an additional dimension. They do not only know what they are looking for sound wise, but they also know how to achieve it in terms of construction. All artists are driven by an initial source or inspiration. Which was your trigger in wanting to create your own piano brand?
SP: I made my first concert grand piano (2m87) thirty years ago. At this time, I was a concert pianist and piano teacher and there was no question of creating a brand but of making an instrument that would allow me to do what I could not do with usual commercial instruments. I used to play this instrument for my concerts and recordings and often lent it to some of my friends. In 1996, I developed a new way of stringing pianos – “hybrid stringing” – by creating my own plain steel wires, which are now marketed all over the world. In 2004, I decided to give up my career as a pianist and piano teacher in order to devote myself to the manufacture in very small series, extremely meticulous, of non-standard instruments. I wanted to rethink piano building in all its details.
PS: The construction of your grand instrument with 102 notes stresses the use and importance of parallel oblique strings and a barless frame. What can you tell us about this specific relationship including the extra 4th?
SP: Our three piano models (SP190, SP230, SP300) have 102 keys: 9 extra notes in the low register (a sixth) and 5 extra notes (a fourth) in the high register. Several reasons led me to add notes to the usual 88-note keyboard:
The evolution of piano making ceased when the range of the keyboard stopped expanding. Extending again the keyboard, is a symbol that piano history moves ahead again
The additional notes, especially in the low register, enriches the whole piano sound.
Today’s composers have at their disposal an instrument that broadens their scope. Until today, more than 10 works were written especially for Opus 102, including extra-notes.
Regarding the barless frame, the aim was to avoid the change of sound quality that is usually noticeable around each frame bar. Removing them brings additional homogeneity and equality to the whole. Parallel strings significantly increase the legibility, intelligibility and articulation of musical phrases especially in the lower-middle and bass ranges. I made them oblique so as to allow as long speaking lengths as those of a cross stringed instrument.
PS: Many a discussion on piano construction and re-thinking comes down to the wooden case – quality and best sound design – as well as the strings. Which are your thoughts on this?
SP: As I mentioned earlier, I have developed another way of stringing pianos by producing and marketing SP strings. The plain strings of our pianos are covered with an electrolytic nickel coating. The bass strings are spun with nickel-plated soft iron and nickel-plated bronze. The soundboard, the bridge, the striking line, the action, the keyboard deserve according to me a priority attention before taking care of the wooden case and external finish, even if we worked on it as well.
One recent recording made in Studio Stephen Paulello is an album of Bach Toccatas played by Laurent Cabasso, who says of the instrument:
– The first time I tried Stephen Paulello’s Opus 102, I was immediately struck by three things, three qualities which we rarely encounter together in a piano: an exceptional length of sound, perfect clarity of the registers due to its parallel strings, and a clear, bright tone… A tenacious doubt often plagued me whenever I played Bach on the piano. This sensation is radically different on Stephen Paulello’s instrument, which brings a remarkable clarity to the polyphony and the tone, so essential to this music.