It has been suggested that the size of Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) slender hands and their huge span were due to a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome www.marfan.org/about/marfan . However, the composer, Arnold Bax (1883-1953) had to make cuts to his Symphonic Variations due to the fact that the pianist Harriet Cohen could not manage more than an octave in each hand. Therein lies the basic problem of the standard piano keyboard - one size needs to fit all.
Looking to address this problem, a chance meeting between the owner of a family textile business, David Steinbuhler and the music director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Christopher Donison in 1991 led to the manufacture of the 7/8 size Donison-Steinbuhler Standard keyboard.
During this meeting Donison had shown Steinbuhler the 7/8 keyboard he had installed in his concert grand piano with an octave equal to a 7th on the conventional keyboard. While studying music at the University of Victoria he had realized that his small hand size was preventing him from mastering much of the great piano repertoire which had led him, in the late 1970s, to have the keyboard built. Donison explained how a whole new world had been opened to him when he first got the keyboard and that this had inspired the concept of creating a second standard.
Steinbuhler had been developing products in his family owned textile business so told Donison that he would try to build small keyboards with the idea of calling the new proposed keyboard size the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard. Hence the DS Standard® was born.
With no preconceived ideas about how to build keyboards, Steinbuhler started tinkering and by the summer of 1994, using a computer driven router, he and a co-worker built the first keyboard which they installed in Steinbuhler’s mother’s Steinway upright. Linda Gould, an acquaintance of Donison’s, flew from Victoria, British Columbia to try it. She had given up her dream of becoming a concert artist because of the pain she had experienced when playing. Her first reaction on trying the new keyboard was how easy it was to play.
Using a grant, Donison and Steinbuhler provided five universities with keyboards, receiving much media attention. They also added a size in the middle, the Universal, which they called a 15/16 keyboard. At an early stage a keyboard made for a Steinway C was rejected by a prestigious piano rebuilder in New York City on the grounds that it was not suitable for professional use due to the springy nature of the highly angled keys in the bass section. This led to the development of techniques to measure key strength and the brace which proved to completely eliminate the problem.
Of course there was much more development particularly after displaying their work at Piano Technician Guild conventions where they received valuable scrutiny, feedback and training. Several sized Steinway B keyboards were made right down to a very small one with an overall width of 38 inches, demonstrating that very small keyboards can be built that do not suffer from any loss of power, touch, or response.
This work eventually allowed them to establish a keyboard size suitable for small children called the DS5.1™ and, lastly, designating the size for the conventional keyboard as DS6.5™ they had four sizes which taken together now constitutes The Donison-Steinbuhler Standard or the DS Standard® .
More can be read about the DS Standard® keyboards by visiting their website www.steinbuhler.com to which I am grateful for the information given in this review.
So how do these new keyboards sound? Pianist Carol Leone www.carolleone.com has made a recording entitled Change of Keys – One Piano, Three Keyboards for MSR Classics www.msrcd.com taking us on a journey from Haydn to Bartók through three keyboards on one Steinway D piano.
Carol Leone uses a conventional 6.50 inch octave keyboard for Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Piano Sonata in C major, Hob XVI:50 (1794). She brings a nice, crisply phrased opening to the Allegro, moving through passages of fine fluency with a great clarity that is enhanced by the fine recording. She shapes the music so well, finding many little nuances that lift the music. She brings a lovely breadth as the Adagio unfolds, beautifully phrased, revealing much poetry. There is more of that exceptional clarity of line, this pianist extracting so much fine texture and tone from the instrument. The Allegro molto is finely phrased and paced, running through the faster passages with a great fluency, bringing a sense of real enjoyment as she skips through this terrific movement.
Carol Leone changes to the DS6.0® 6.00 inch octave keyboard for Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109 (1820) bringing a lovely opening to the Vivace ma non Troppo, so fluent and flexible, beautifully shaped, before slowly developing the music through some very fine textures. I thought that I could detect a particular firmness or security of touch but perhaps this was just my imagination. Certainly Leone brings a wonderful delicacy and clarity to many passages, a real thoughtfulness. There is great flexibility and control in the Prestissimo with this pianist revealing lightning reflexes through some particularly fluent passages. The Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo has a beautifully poised opening with a real restraint before moving into some finely controlled faster bars, again bringing lovely clarity. She subtly allows the music to increase in breadth before rising through the most wonderful passage of passionate dynamic invention to a quiet, poetic coda.
For Frédéric Chopin’s (1810-1849): Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1831) Leone uses the DS5.5® 5.54 inch octave keyboard. She provides some exquisitely delicate, light toned phrases with a lovely fluency, thoughtfully phrased and paced. She rises through some finely textured passages bringing a real freedom to her phrasing; the often exquisite touch that she delivers is surely in part due to the size of keyboard.
Carol Leone continues the rest of her recital using the DS5.5® 5.54 inch octave keyboard with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Liebeslied: ‘Widmung’, S.566 (1848) arranged by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). It is beautifully shaped, rising and falling through the lovely melody, with a lovely poetic second subject before rising in passion with this pianist bringing a real authority.
She really gets inside Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) L’Isle Joyeuse, L.106 (1904) bringing a lovely freedom and fluency with many subtle little moments that are so revealing. Again there is a tremendous clarity of texture with Leone beautifully integrating all the little rhythmic moments, finding all the quickly changing moods before a wonderful coda.
Motoric rhythms open the Allegro moderato of Béla Bartók’s (1881-1945) Piano Sonata, BB 88, SZ.80 (1926), this pianist bringing such a variety of dynamics and textures, a freedom and panache through Bartók’s terrific harmonies and intervals with some finely sprung rhythms before speeding to a terrific coda. The Sostenuto e pesante has some very fine dissonant harmonies before the music picks its way slowly through some beautifully nuanced passages. Leone shapes and paces this music so well, building through some incisive, powerful chords before quietening to lead to a sudden conclusion. She pushes the Allegro molto ahead with a real sense of freedom and spontaneity, providing some terrific dissonances, always with a tremendous clarity. There are some terrifically fluent phrases before the music starts to build in power to a sudden dissonant coda.
The whole concept of this disc is fascinating and the result is a particularly fine recital in its own right. It is quite revealing when one looks at photographs in the booklet of the fingering for each of the keyboards for the same chord. There are fascinating booklet notes concerning various keyboard sizes as well as notes about the composers and their music. The very fine recording adds considerably to the merits of this disc.