Hungary’s piano man

This piano represents the first major redesign of the instrument in over a century. Its Hungarian creator has spent more than a decade creating it with a maverick team – and it sounds a whole lot like the future

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2015)

In 1 August last year, renowned Hungarian concert pianist Gergely Bogányi sat at a piano and flexed his fingers to play Liszt’s La Leggierezza. It’s one of Bogányi’s favourite pieces, and he’s played it hundreds of times. Yet, he remembers, “I was sweating; I was out of my mind with anxiety.”

The reason wasn’t the piece, but the piano itself. Bogányi has spent more than a decade and over US$1 million (NOK7.6m) creating the first major redesign of the piano in more than 100 years – and this was the first time he’d ever played a finished prototype.

“We’d done all the tests, done everything, but when I sat down then I still didn’t know. I wasn’t sure if the piano could create the sound that was in my head. And then I started playing…” He looks dreamy for a moment. “There it was. It was the miraculous sound I’d been dreaming of for so long.”

I meet Bogányi on a frigid January day at the entrance to a sprawling industrial park in Szigethalom, on the gritty outer edges of Budapest. He ushers me into his Porsche Panamera with a big smile, and puts his foot to accelerator, grinning boyishly as the car takes off at a slightly unnerving speed.

The flamboyant Bogányi seems out of place among the Communist-era brick outhouses, with his long hair, pink shirt and snugly fitting leather jacket. Yet he doesn’t seem as out-of-place as his creation.

In a chilly unit in a corner of the park, surrounded by dusty workbenches, sits the Bogányi piano, which has been dubbed the “Batpiano” for understandable reasons. It’s all futuristic curves in glossy black, not a million miles from Bogányi’s Porsche – and almost every single one of its 18,000 parts has been redesigned from scratch.

Just a week before, the Batpiano had been unveiled to the world at a special concert in Budapest – and, much to its creator’s relief, the reviews of its sound had been almost universally positive.

Four-time Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Gerald Clayton said after playing the Bogányi piano: “The sound almost feels as if you’re in a bubble, it’s so clear. It feels like you are in a spaceship, like you are hovering above gravity.”

Karoly Reisinger, CEO of renowned New York piano repair shop Klavierhaus, was “mesmerised”. “You can hear the 1850-1860 era qualities, lyrical, bell-like, precise – and also the clarity of the modern instrument,” he says.

Success was never a given. For 20 years  Bogányi had the idea of creating a new kind of piano, one that could be “friendly and velvety like an old piano, but powerful like a new one.” While he’s at pains to stress his respect for traditional pianos, especially those from the early 19th century, he says: “There was a sound in my head that I couldn’t get from existing pianos. I would play in concerts and I’d be thinking about whether you could have a more accurate, powerful sound.”

With his piano technician – Attila Bükki, who passed away in 2012 – he says he would spend hours after concerts thinking about how you could improve the piano’s sound. “You don’t have to know how a piano works to be a great pianist,” he says, “but I became fascinated by the technical side of it. I have a relentless soul, and I couldn’t understand why everyone else was so resistant to change when it came to the piano. Something had to give.”

Just over 10 years ago he began the process of creating a completely new piano with technician Csaba Szász and designer Péter Attila Üveges, who had designed solar-powered cars and bikes but until that point had never plonked a piano key, let alone designed one. Technician Jozsef Cs Nagy and chief constructor Attila Bolega later joined the team – like Üveges, Bolega had never worked on a piano.

“We didn’t take a good piano as a base,” says Bogányi. “We started from point zero, with a designer and builder who knew nothing about pianos. What they had to learn in a short space of time is phenomenal, but crucially they weren’t weighed down by previous knowledge.”

The first major project, which consumed the most time, was the soundboard, the plank that’s effectively the heart of the piano. In just about every other piano, the soundboard is made of wood, which reacts to heat and humidity; in the Bogányi piano, it’s composed of more than 20 layers of carbon composites, meaning it provides a rich, consistent sound with lingering after-tones.

“We had more than 50 soundboards we were tinkering with,” says Bogányi. “We sent them to mathematicians, who came back with 500 pages of diagrams and charts. None of that matters if a piano sounds like crap in the concert hall but, miraculously maybe, the mathematicians chose the same one that we did.”

The soundboard is one of many crucial design changes on the Bogányi piano. The agraffes – the links between the keys and the soundboard – were redesigned to create almost zero friction; the frame above the soundboard was reshaped in special cast iron; and the traditional three legs were ditched in favour of two curved legs that project sound towards the audience.

Despite its futuristic look, Bogányi insists that form followed function. “The look of it all stems from the sound. It was like designing a sports car, but harder in some ways, because you need to find a certain poetry and beauty as well as technical perfection. In a piano, every component reacts to every other component – from a design perspective, it’s an incredibly delicate balancing act.”

As for the process, Bogányi says, “There were so many failures. Every second day I thought about giving up. But I’d invested my money, my passion, my whole being in this. I trusted the gods. I was also lucky to have a team of geniuses. In a way, my job was easy – I just had to say that’s not good enough.”

Bogányi says that orders have already started coming in but the price is still not fixed. All he can say is that “it will be very expensive”, with an eight-month waiting time, and that they’re not planning to make more than 20 or 30 in a year.

“The aim was never to make money or to compete with the Faziolis and the Steinways. It was to create something new, something beautiful.” With that, he starts to play, and for a moment a corner of the industrial park is filled with Mozart’s slow movement of the piano concerto KV 488. When Bogányi stops playing, the notes hang in the air, and he sits, eyes closed, in contemplation. After 30 seconds or so, he opens his eyes. “Not bad, huh?”

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