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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Most great piano music comes straight from the middle of the keyboard.

(Soundbite of piano music)

INSKEEP: If you were the one sitting at the piano playing a piece like this, your fingers would mostly stay right in front of you. You'd rarely go to the tinkly high notes off to your right, or the booming bass notes off to your left. Yet a craftsman in Australia thinks the instrument has room to grow. He's added more keys at each end.

And Neva Grant reports on a really grand piano.

NEVA GRANT: It weighs 1400 pounds, but can sound as fragile as spun glass...

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: ...or as tough as a foghorn.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: The Stuart and Sons grand piano has 14 more keys than most, which means the lowest and highest notes live very much on the edge. To show you, let's first sit down at the Yamaha grand at NPR, with the typical 88 keys.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: On the left-hand side of the piano, you can go down this low.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: On the Stuart piano, you can go nine notes lower.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: Now the high notes. First on the Yamaha grand, we can go up to here.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: And on the Stuart: Five extra notes up.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. WAYNE STUART (Piano Designer, Stuart and Sons): I would hate to go back to playing an 88-note piano; can't stand it, too limited.

GRANT: Piano designer Wayne Stuart says a few other grands can play as low as his 102-key model, but none can play as high. It's a great feat of acrobatics, you might say. But those extra notes really aren't that musical. So why have them? For color, says Stuart, and resonance.

Mr. STUART: There's a tremendous amount...

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. STUART: ...of energy there in the low octave notes. You can hear the power.

GRANT: Actually, you can sense the power, even in pieces where the lowest notes aren't played.

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Mr. GERARD WILLEMS (Concert Pianist): Beethoven might have actually loved the sound of the Stuart piano.

GRANT: Concert pianist Gerard Willems has recorded most of Beethoven's works on a Stuart grand. Willems says Beethoven only had about 70 keys on his piano, and he would have used more notes if he'd had them. But don't focus too much on the keys, he says. This Stuart piano has other innovations, its strings vibrate differently from other pianos. So even when you play many notes at once, says Willems, each sound rings out clear and separate.

Mr. WILLEMS: It's almost like, sort of taking wool and you pull the wool apart. And you can feel, and you can sense and smell each different layer of the sound.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: But if the Stuart piano is going to attract more attention, it has to attract living composers to write for it. And that's starting to happen.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. FIONA JOY HAWKINS (Composer/Musician): It's probably the best piano I've ever played on.

GRANT: New Age jazz musician Fiona Joy Hawkins has composed pieces for the Stuart piano. Listen for those whispery high notes.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. HAWKINS: What it lends itself to is the ability to get a lot more from a single note. It just doesn't have any bend in the decay, it just goes straight. It goes forever so you get these incredible harmonics that last.

(Soundbite of piano music)

GRANT: Some people say the Stuart has a distinctly Australian sound, as clear and bright as sun on the beach. But even here in Australia, the instrument has its critics. Pianist and music Professor Geoffrey Lancaster would not say this piano is sunny.

Professor GEOFFREY LANCASTER (Music Department, Australian National University): I find the sounds very cold. They don't have that dimension of warmth that, say, a great Steinway does. It's this clarity - this so-called clarity, this crystalline quality - it's really quite icy.

GRANT: The Stuart grand can't expect to compete with a giant like Steinway; only about 40 of the pianos have been sold worldwide.

But Geoffrey Lancaster says the Stuart raises an important question. When do we stop innovating?

Prof. LANCASTER: The idea back even 150 years ago was that each piano should be a masterpiece in its own right; and should not necessarily resemble the piano that was made before it. That's changed, of course. We now have pianos from many fine makers around the world, which are all fundamentally the same. So I'm all for innovation in the modern piano.

GRANT: And how you innovate, he says, depends as always on personal taste. And if you want a Stuart, you'll need personal finances, too. The top model cost $300,000 delivered.

For NPR News, I'm Neva Grant in Sydney.

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