Charl du Plessis plays a Steinway piano on top of Table Mountain
Charl du Plessis plays a Steinway piano on top of Table Mountain
Image: Supplied

“It is not often that you get a piano of this age that is of concert standard,” piano technician Rudi Strydom says of the 122-year-old Steinway at the historic Northwards House in Parktown, Joburg. “Pianists are blown away by the fact that this ancient instrument performs like a modern-day concert instrument.”

The 1902 Steinway piano, with its intricately inlaid rosewood case, has a storied history, having arrived in the Herbert Baker building in 1913, when mining magnate Sir George Albu and his family took ownership of the mansion. It was played by Albu’s daughter Kitty, whose books on the lives of composers live on as part of the Northwards legacy. 

In 1951, when the Albu family auctioned their house (to the SABC) and most of their belongings, the piano remained in the family, later becoming the property of the dowager Lady Albu, Sir George’s second wife.

Fast-forward 40-odd years, to a meeting between Northwards custodian Neil Viljoen and the Randlord’s granddaughter Julia Albu, who told him the piano was on sale for R100,000. It had been badly neglected and was barely worth the price, but Viljoen was determined to bring it back to its home. So he approached Gencor, which had been founded by Albu, and asked the company to buy it back for the heritage site; it agreed to pay R85,000 and Sanlam paid the balance.

At the time, limited work was done to make the piano playable, and in 1994 a function was held to reintroduce it to Northwards, with members of the Albu family in attendance. Celebrated pianist Nina Schumann played at the first concert held in June that year.

A ‘breathtaking’ restoration

More than 10 years on, Florian Uhlig, co-organiser of the popular annual Mozart Festival with Richard Cock and professor of piano at Germany’s Lübeck School of Music, was playing the piano when a string snapped. He advised Viljoen that the piano needed restoring because the balance of the notes wasn’t quite right.

At about that time, Steinway agent James Ledgerwood came to South Africa from Hamburg; he was excited to see the piano was still in use, pointing out that similar pianos in Europe were mostly in museums. The problem, he said, was that it would cost in the region of R250,000 to restore — and it would be prohibitively expensive to ship to Hamburg for restoration.

As an alternative, he recommended the only Steinway agent in the country, Ian Burgess-Simpson, based in Cape Town. Viljoen again went the corporate route: he contacted Vincent Maphai — the chair of BHP Billiton (the old Gencor) — and asked if the company would foot the bill. Instead, Maphai and his board said they would be delighted to donate the piano to Northwards. 

Storied history: The 1902 Steinway piano with intricately inlaid rosewood case
Storied history: The 1902 Steinway piano with intricately inlaid rosewood case
Image: Supplied

So it was that the Steinway became the property of the Northwards Trust. It agreed to pay for the total restoration of the piano, which was crated by Stuttafords to Burgess-Simpson with a recommended insurance cost of R2m.

It’s no small feat. A piano has 12,000 parts — 10,000 of them moving. By the time Burgess-Simpson returned it 15 months later, all that remained of the original piano was the case, the steel frame, the soundboard and the ivory keyboard. (The art case in particular is unique and highly valued; to replace the piano would cost somewhere between R4m and R6m, says Strydom.)

Burgess-Simpson also built a small water tank under the piano with two felt wicks that convey moisture to the soundboard. The aim is to maintain the right level of humidity to stop the board from cracking. (Viljoen fills the tank when a robot-like mechanism indicates that the water is running out.)

“It was breathtaking to remove the crating and see the magnificent finish and to hear the truly beautiful sound when played,” Viljoen tells the FM.

From 2016, Strydom, who was trained by Burgess-Simpson, took over as the sole Steinway technician in the country. At Viljoen’s insistence the piano is tuned before every concert (about once a month) and fully serviced once a year. When Uhlig next played the piano, he said it had never been better than under Strydom’s care, and that it was the best piano he had played on anywhere in the world.

It is a known fact that 95% of concert pianists worldwide prefer performing on Steinways. They call it ‘the piano for pianists’,
Rudy Strydom 

“It is a known fact that 95% of concert pianists worldwide prefer performing on Steinways. They call it ‘the piano for pianists’,” says Strydom. “This piano has an incredibly strong tone, which is uncharacteristic for a piano of this age, but not uncharacteristic for a Steinway.”

He adds: “This instrument has the ability to enrapture people because of the beauty of the sound, and the pianist doesn’t have to fight with the piano because it is in such good condition.”

Ultimately, the outcome of the elaborate, multifaceted process of servicing the piano is to enable it to respond optimally to the pianist while retaining the authenticity of the piano’s sound. That’s sometimes a fine line to tread, says Strydom. “As a technician I know the standard that needs to be upheld, and as a concert technician I understand the needs of a wide range of pianists. I am responsible for ensuring that the piano remains true to its character and to what Steinway was trying to achieve originally with this build and this design. I have to do this without offending the pianists or the ears of the audience.”

Heritage site: The Sir Herbert Baker designed Northwards House in Parktown, Johannesburg
Heritage site: The Sir Herbert Baker designed Northwards House in Parktown, Johannesburg
Image: Dudu Zitha

Music on the mountain 

The piano has become a hit with professional piano players from around the world. Says Eugene Joubert, one of the founders of the Chamber Music Collective: “It is a wonderful instrument and the maintenance is of such a high quality. There is an energy to it that you respond to and the ease with which you can create a very beautiful song-like sound with the piano is phenomenal. I play quite a lot of concerts in Gauteng and also in the Western Cape and it is very rare to get to a venue connected to a university where tuning is done so frequently and the piano is in such good condition. Often you have to close your eyes and hope that things function ...”

Internationally acclaimed pianist and teacher at the University of Pretoria,  Megan-Geoffrey Prins, describes playing the Northwards piano as an honour. “I can play just about anything on that piano. Wherever Rudi has worked, I look forward to the concert. I know it will be a good concert,” he says.

The sense of history that permeates Northwards enhances the engagement between pianist and audience, adding to the pleasure of the experience, he says.

Most recently, Italian pianist Danilo Mascetti, who received a standing ovation after playing for 90 minutes without a break, said his performance was facilitated by “the fine piano”.

The programme for the first piano recital after the Steinway piano was restored
The programme for the first piano recital after the Steinway piano was restored
Image: Supplied

South African pianist Charl du Plessis is a “Steinway artist” — an honour bestowed on renowned pianists known for their love of the brand. An expert in George Gershwin’s music, he has developed a career in jazz and classical music. He’s played with famous jazz musicians such as Chick Corea and with orchestras all over the world, from the Berlin Philharmonic to New York, China, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. Du Plessis has also been the pianist for the singer and songwriter Nataniël, with whom he has travelled the globe. A highlight of his extensive travels, he tells the FM, was being invited to play a Steinway on top of Table Mountain in 2017.

For Du Plessis, the quality of the craftsmanship and the durability of the Northwards piano allow him to play a range of music, from the classics to jazz. “The regular concerts at Northwards are a great vote of confidence for classical music and for that venue in the future,” he says.



Before the restoration of Northwards’s Steinway piano, the heritage building’s curator, Neil Viljoen, was approached by a film company asking if it could film a child playing the ivory keys for inclusion in a documentary on conservation.

The filmmakers wanted to illustrate the fact that up until the beginning of the 20th century, Steinway and other piano manufacturers needed the ivory from up to 3,000 elephants a year for their keyboards. It was the only suitable material available for this purpose at the time.

According to the film production team, the piano manufacturers were responsible for eradicating almost all the elephants on the east coast of Africa.

European piano manufacturers, including Steinway, stopped using ivory in 1956.

This article was orginally published in the Financial Mail. 

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.