Modern materials and manufacturing techniques meet traditional straight-strung construction in the innovative grand pianos of maverick Belgian maker Chris Maene. Owen Mortimer reports Straight to the heart
Driving through the countryside 30 kilometres west of Ghent, where flat, fertile fields stretch to the horizon in every direction, you could be forgiven for wondering whether you’ve come to the right place to find Belgium’s leading piano company. Yet here, on the outskirts of the tiny town of Ruiselede, Chris Maene has built the showroom, workshop and office from which he has slowly but surely conquered every corner of the country’s piano market. Sprawling over an area of more than 4,000 square metres, the complex even includes a concert hall where Maene showcases his instruments and hosts events such as the Belgian Steinway Competition.
I am nervous before our meeting, wondering what kind of man could be behind such a seemingly rapacious enterprise. These fears turn out to be completely unfounded: Maene is as down-to-earth as one could hope. His shock of pure white hair, funky glasses and animated manner give him the air of a mad professor, and indeed he turns out to be something of a maverick. Born into a family of instrument builders, he made his first harpsichord at the age of 16, and by 21 had constructed a copy of an 18th-century Dulcken fortepiano. ‘My father worked with me on that first fortepiano and it was signed by both of us,’ says Maene. ‘He was a very good technician and I learnt a lot from working together. That first piano was an immediate success and was hired out extensively, including being used by the Festival of Flanders in Bruges.’ This turned out to be the start of an extraordinary journey into the world of historic instruments that has seen Maene create copies of dozens of harpsichords and pianos, including some very rare instruments such as Beethoven’s Broadwood, Chopin’s 1843 Pleyel and the first fortepiano built by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg – later to become known as Steinway.
Each instrument has its own unique story, none more fascinating than the creation of the Steinweg. ‘This was very difficult because there is only one piece in the world and the underside of the instrument is closed,’ explains Maene. ‘However, there are many cracks in the soundboard so I was able to use paper to feel inside the whole system. In the end, we also received sponsorship from General Electric who paid to have the instrument X-rayed. What we found was exactly the same as my designs, though it was good to have this confirmation!’ Steinweg’s original instrument dates from 1836 and can no longer be played, but thanks to the hard work of Maene and his colleagues, audiences today can now hear how it would have sounded. (A documentary about the creation of Maene’s Steinweg replica is available on DVD: Building a Legend: The quest for the original sound of the first Steinway grand piano.)
Maene has been the exclusive importer of Steinway & Sons for Belgium since 2002, but the Steinweg project further deepened the relationship between the two companies. Maene was therefore the first person Steinway turned to when a leading Steinway Artist began asking them about straight-stringing – a construction method that hadn’t been employed in Steinway pianos since Henry Steinway Jr patented cross-stringing in 1869. The Steinway Artist in question was Daniel Barenboim, who on a visit to Siena in 2011 played Liszt’s recently restored 1862 Bechstein piano and was impressed by the quality of its sound. Having discovered that the Bechstein
Maverick instrument maker Chris Maene at his workshop in
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