Grand pianos, concert pianists and Southbank Centre: 7 things to know

Wednesday, October 23, 2019 - 11:18

Southbank Centre is world renowned for its concert halls especially the Royal Festival Hall’s exquisite acoustics and impressive 7,866 pipe organ but our pianos have plenty of stories to tell too. We celebrate these majestic instruments in our International Piano Series. The series presents some of the world’s most prestigious pianists and showcases the current generation of rising stars.

With a little help from our dedicated piano tuners, we’ve put together a list of interesting and unusual facts on our concert pianos and the pianists that have played them.

Our piano tuners are two of the most respected concert technicians in the industry

Starting out as piano technicians with Steinway, Peter Salisbury and Jonathan Heard, our in-house piano tuners, have worked with almost every famous international concert pianist who has played in London over the last 30 years. Working with the world’s greatest pianists and orchestras, Salisbury and Heard have been at the forefront of the double action concept which we’ll explain in a bit more detail later. Both tuners have been working at Southbank Centre for an impressive 27 years.


We’re home to eight concert grand pianos

We have one of the world’s largest collections of concert grand pianos. Our high-quality pianos have been used on award-winning recordings and are regularly loaned out to other prestigious venues to be played by internationally-renowned pianists. Heading up piano maintenance, Salisbury says: ‘we have a special situation at Southbank Centre. Jon and I have the backing to go out and supply the very best.’


Martha Argerich plays Schumann/Liszt - Widmung (London, 29 January 2017)

We can make one piano into two

Salisbury and Heard have pioneered the double action concept at Southbank Centre. For the non-classical buffs amongst us, this basically means producing an identical keyboard and action mechanism that can be quickly changed over. Essentially, we’ve got two very different instruments within one. Why you might ask? There are many benefits to pianos with second actions including a reduction in cost, saving on storage space, only one piano requires tuning, and finally, pianists have more choice. Southbank Centre has six double actions, which is the largest amount of any venue in the world.


You can liken it to a pit stop where you change the tyres on the Formula One car but we have a bit longer – three minutes.
Peter Salisbury, piano technician at Southbank Centre, on the changeover of a double action piano

Not all pianos sound the same

You might think that all grand pianos sound the same but the pianos we have in Royal Festival Hall are mainly used in concerto performances, so this requires the instrument to project the sound to fill the 2,900 seated hall. Whereas Queen Elizabeth Hall is mainly used for solo recitals and due to its smaller capacity may require more intimacy of tone and clarity.

Salisbury gives an example of these differences in a story involving two leading pianists trying out a number of our pianos before their performances: ‘They both disliked the pianos that the other pianist had chosen. Neither could see why the other would like it. That’s exactly the reason why we have a number of pianos set up in different styles and chosen in the first place to reflect that concept of sound. Each has its devotees and each offers different possibilities in the correct hands. A “one piano fits all” offered to the level of artists we have performing here is pointless. It’s a no-compromise service that’s offered as these are the world’s greatest artists.’


Paul Lewis - Southbank Centre

Pianists follow peculiar pre-concert rituals

From spending hours finding the perfect stool to making sure their hands are at the optimum temperature, world-class pianists can be particularly superstitious when it comes to their pre-concert rituals.

Salisbury explains more: ‘Shura Cherkassky, who studied under Josef Hoffman, had certain rituals when he played here. He always asked for non-fluffy, linen towels. Finding the perfect piano stool would take at least two hours because he wanted to try a minimum of eight – normally we offer two. He would practice so slowly like the way Hoffman taught him. He’d put his finger in the middle of the key and play so slowly that the rehearsal took four hours instead of two. And this apparently is a way of you knowing what you are going to play, but not using motor memory. Before the performance, he’d say “I need my hands warmed up”, so he’d put his hands out in front of me. By this stage, all the backstage knowing the routine had conveniently disappeared because whoever was left at the door had to do the warming of the hands.’


John Cage’s compositions are often the most unusual pieces to be played here

The invention of the “prepared piano” is usually traced back to American composer John Cage. It essentially means placing objects on or between the strings to alter the sound of the piano. Salisbury gives us more detail: ‘We have to make things up for that and put things into the piano to turn it into something like a Gamelan. Cage is quite precise with his instructions as to what he wants you to do but there is some leeway where you have to use a bit of imagination when he wants it to be more improvised. You have to work out a way of doing it so as not damaging the piano.’


Maurizio Pollini has an affinity with the Southbank Centre

Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini has appeared a staggering 135 times at Southbank Centre. His remarkable journey began back in 1963 and shows no sign of ending any time soon as we welcome him back on 28 April 2020 for a solo recital in Royal Festival Hall.


In addition to the return of Pollini, the UK’s longest-running dedicated piano series International Piano Series features 16 recitals by outstanding international artists including Daniil Trifonov, Steven Osborne, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Stephen Hough, Lise de La Salle and Ingrid Fliter.

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