As a subscriber to Carnegie Hall, I was invited to a highly unusual event on Wednesday evening at Steinway Hall. Since I'd never before been to the piano maker's new venue on Sixth Avenue and was moreover extremely interested in hearing the featured performance by virtuoso pianist Paul Lewis, I eagerly accepted.the invitation.
The evening began with complimentary wine and champagne immediately followed by Mr. Lewis's performance. In the event, he only played for roughly a half hour but even so had time enough to give brilliant renditions of both Chopin's Waltz in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2, and Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825. Before beginning, Mr. Lewis gave the titles of the works (there was no printed program) and mentioned that he felt it worked well to follow a piece in A minor with one in B-flat major, only a semitone distant.
It was a very intimate setting - the "hall" is not much larger than a private screening room and has unquestionably the best acoustics I've encountered in any size venue - that enabled the audience to follow the pianist closely and, in particular, the movement of his hands. There was nothing at all flashy in Mr. Lewis's style, just a minute attention to detail that allowed him to phrase each passage perfectly so that each note was fully audible. His interpretation of the Bach partita was especially rewarding. One was able to appreciate the complexity of Bach's music and the manner in which he was able to structure the Baroque dance forms into a coherent whole.
Fascinating as Mr. Lewis's performance was, the most interesting part of the evening followed immediately after as Steinway used the occasion to introduce its newest product, evocatively named "Spirio." Believe it or not, this was nothing more or less than the venerable player piano reimagined for the digital age. But unlike the old uprights threading a perforated paper roll, there was nothing about this version that was at all mechanical. To begin the demonstration, Paul Lewis took a seat in the audience as the piano on which he had performed repeated on its own the gigue that had closed the Bach partita. The effect was amazing - I literally could not tell the difference between the live performance and the recorded. It sounded exactly the same, note for note. And that, of course, was the whole point. One can now have a piano in one's living room that recreates a given pianist's performance precisely as he or she played it right down to that individual's distinctive touch on the keys. Instead of hearing a recording, one listens to a live acoustic performance.
To drive the point home, a projector screen was lowered and an antique newsreel was then shown of George Gershwin performing "I've Got Rhythm" on solo piano. The newsreel's scratchy mono soundtrack was turned off while the piano played the tune in perfect sync with the video. It was the closest one could ever hope to come to actually hearing Gershwin play live.
I'm not sure how successful Spirio will prove for Steinway - how many can after all afford the price of a Steinway piano even without the additional cost of the playback technology? - but it's certainly a wonderful innovation for anyone wishing to liven up their next party with a live piano recital. I was informed by a Steinway rep that there is now a repertoire of some two thousand prerecorded pieces available to the purchaser. But I was also told that the piano is unable to record music played upon it. If a pianist wishes to have a recording of his own musicianship for playback, it's necessary to go to a special studio to have that done.
Perhaps acknowledging that Spirio is not for everyone, Steinway was considerate enough to give departing guests a gift bag that included a CD of Paul Lewis performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann's Fantasie in C major. Listening to it might not be quite as gratifying as hearing Mr. Lewis - or his piano - play live, but it's definitely the next best thing.