by Michael Caruso
The Cunningham Piano Company has been a fixture in Germantown since 1891. Located at 5427 Germantown Ave., the factory continues to assemble the company’s namesake piano as well as oversee one of the country’s leading centers for piano restoration.
Many consider the highpoint of those restoration efforts to be Cunningham’s internationally esteemed collection of vintage grand pianos made by the New York-based Steinway & Sons. With the Center City showroom of Jacob’s Music, the local Steinway franchise, closed as a result of its having been broken into and looted, Cunningham’s fleet of restored Steinways has assumed an even higher local profile.
Not only does Cunningham have vintage Steinways to offer, it’s also been named the “Yamaha Piano Dealer of the Year.” The Japanese maker produces more pianos than any other builder in the world.
The crown jewel of Cunningham’s roster of new instruments, though, is its selection of Bosendorfer grand pianos. The Viennese-based company, founded in 1828 and now owned by Yamaha, has long been considered the finest piano maker in the world. It was the chosen instrument of the legendary Franz Liszt. Cunningham’s stewardship of these amazing instruments is so appreciated by the Viennese headquarters that in 2005 it was named the official site for technical assistance for all of North America.
With all of this in mind, it’s often asked why Bosendorfers are not more frequently chosen for professional recitals and concerts in the U.S. Producing a handmade Bosendorfer takes five years. While limited accessibility and scarcity of trained technicians to service the pianos are both parts of the answer, they don’t form the entire answer.
Bosendorfer’s 9’6” “Imperial Concert Grand” is not only the longest grand piano; at 5’5” it’s also the widest. It offers 97 keys rather than the usual 88, going all the way down to a “Double Low C.” The late 19th-early 20th century Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni needed those extra low notes for his piano transcriptions of the great organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ludwig Bosendorfer was happy to accommodate him with the grandest grand piano of them all.
The problem with the “Imperial” is getting it through the doors between backstage and onstage. Many American concert and recital halls can’t readily handle the instrument without disassembling it backstage, re-assembling it onstage, disassembling it onstage and then re-assembling it again backstage after a performance. Needless to say, extra time and money are both involved, often pricing its use out of reach.
While Bosendorfer’s designers had previously considered dealing with this issue, it wasn’t until Yamaha’s purchase of Bosendorfer in 2008 and the subsequent infusion of the necessary cash that a decision was made to design from scratch a concert grand with the normal 88 keys and regular width. Hence the “Concert Grand 280VC.”
It was the opportunity to play this “next generation” Bosendorfer that drew me to Cunningham’s newly reopened showroom in King of Prussia on a recent Thursday afternoon. As a longtime devotee of the pianos made by the Hamburg branch of Steinway & Sons, I was eager to try it out. All the hype in the world didn’t mean a thing to me without putting it to the test of my own fingers and ears.
Owner Rich Galassini showed me all of Cunningham’s Bosendorfers, but my focus was on the new boy on the block, the 9’2”/88 key “Concert Grand 280VC.” With a key action markedly different from an American Steinway grand and even distinct from my own German Steinway, it took me more than a short piece or two by Chopin to feel comfortable playing the Bosendorfer. But once I did, I was overwhelmed by its voluminous power, bracing clarity, delicacy of texture and singing legato.
Still, I wasn’t completely won over. I wanted to hear a “real” pianist play it. So Galassini called in Hugh Sung, on staff at Cunningham for just such a situation. Before coming to Cunningham, Sung was the director of accompanying studies at the Curtis Institute of Music.
Sung played Chopin’s “Ballade” No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23. It was a stunning rendition: musically, technically and instrumentally. I heard the full spectrum of expressive color Chopin intended the listener to hear in this score.
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