The first big redesign of the piano in more a hundred years has a unique tone, according to those who’ve played it in Budapest – ‘like you are hovering above gravity’
So celebrated is Franz Liszt in Hungary that if all its statues of the composer came to life they could form a small orchestra.
So it is fitting that the country that produced the 19th-century composer should also produce perhaps the most startling upgrade to the instrument that made his name: the piano.
Some are calling it the Batpiano because of its sleek, Gothamesque look. For others, it’s a cross between an art deco sculpture and something out of Star Trek. Or else a Steinway reimagined by Umberto Boccioni.
“There have been no major developments in piano construction in over 100 years,” said Gergely Bogányi, when last week he gave the Guardian a preview of his 10-year project at a workshop in Budapest. He has already spent 8,000 working hours on it.
The big question, of course, is what does it sound like? Such is the sheer visual presence of the gleaming “Bogányi” that it is surprising to learn that the instrument is a few centimetres shorter than a Steinway model D.
From behind the keyboard, the sound is sustained and airy, as the curved left leg – it has only two – directs the sound from under the piano, as well as from above, creating a spacey effect.
While the tone of the instrument, with its patented carbon composite soundboard, is rich, the action is incredibly light, recalling older models from the dawn of the piano, before manufacturers began to prioritise power to appeal to romantics such as Liszt.
Bogányi explained that this smoothness is down to his use of the modifications first suggested, but never widely used, by the 19th-century Hungarian piano maker Lajos Beregszászy. He installed an agraffe system – a guide anchoring the strings – on the bridge.
“Right on cue to support his claims of finesse combined with power, Bogányi crashes into Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, then follows with the rolling arpeggios of Liszt’s Liebestraum (Dreams of Love).
Tamás Horváth, a sound engineer at Bartók Rádió, which broadcast the concert, said: “I can certainly say it has a unique tone, although this is characteristic of all great piano producer products, such as Steinway, or Bösendorfer – they all have a specific sound.”
Gerald Clayton, a four-time Grammy award winner who also performed at the piano’s debut concert this week, has had more playing time on the Bogányi than most.
“It feels like you are in a spaceship, like you are hovering above gravity,” he said. “When you play a lot of notes, or you play a chord, the sensation is different. It’s super-clear.” Horváth agreed that the Bogányi had “a great sound for jazz pieces”.
Bogányi said his instrument is different from other attempts to reinvent the piano: notably Peugeot’s collaboration with Pleyel and Audi’s with Bösendorfer. “They are design pianos, but we have focused on everything that was connected to the sound,” Bogányi said.
“I never did what they wanted me to do,” added the floppy-haired former wunderkind, now 41, who was jokingly introduced by his press officer as “Liszt reborn”.
The fundamental design of the piano has remained unchanged for about 130 years, following 200 years of evolution from Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco’s prototype of around 1700.
Horváth stops short of calling his compatriot’s invention a paradigm shift, however: “We will have to wait to find out how the instrument will sound after it has aged a little bit, as pianos acquire their specific sound over years.”
And for anyone planning to reinvent an instrument for themselves, Bogányi said he was not exactly sure how much money he has spent on his labour of love over the last decade, but estimated the overall project cost just under €1m (£750,000).
So where can you get one? The piano will not start retailing until later in the year, and you will have to save up. Bogányi said. “With these materials, it will definitely not be cheap.”