In an overlooked corner of Leeds, Sheena Hastings discovers the UK’s largest piano emporium.
We’re looking at a sad wreck of a grand piano. Its keys are like a fairytale crone’s rotten, yellowed teeth; the legs are battered, bruised stumps; its lid had disintegrated into five pieces by the time it was rescued in the clearance of a house in Halifax.
This faded ghost of a Steinway has come into the right hands. Melvin Besbrode, who owns what’s thought to be the UK’s largest piano emporium, based in a four-storey, scruffy-looking former woollen mill in Holbeck, Leeds, paid £3,000 for this hand-built instrument.
That may seem a hefty price tag for such decrepitude, but Melvin will ship it back to approved Steinway restorers in Germany, where it will be lovingly renovated from top to bottom. After six months of meticulous work, it will return to Yorkshire, where Melvin expects it to sell for around £35k.
“There are always people who only want a Steinway, because they’re the best,” he says simply.
There’s a whole floor of beautiful Steinways at Besbrode Pianos, including the exquisite Model D, which is hired out across the country and has been played by famous names including Michael Nyman and Johnny Dankworth.
During the latter stages of the upcoming Leeds International Piano Competition, contestants will find the out-of-the-way treasure trove and practice their pieces on this gorgeous instrument, which is the same as that used for the competition in the Town Hall.
Besbrode also runs its own piano competition, and concerts are regularly held here in the showroom. It has even been used as a recording studio and location for music videos. It’s a lively place, not some sort of hushed piano museum.
Among Melvin Besbrode’s treasures are a wealth of historic, so-called art case pianos. As the only source of music in the home, around the turn of the 20th century a period of prosperity fed into the arts and a focus on making a piano’s casing into a piece of art in itself.
“Technical innovation of the instrument had reached its peak, and so had the importance of the piano, before the days of the gramophone or radio,” says Melvin. “The wealthy would commission intricate casings to reflect their status.”
The design and craftsmanship here is sensational. An 1893 Pleyel grand piano is beautifully hand-painted with fairies, nudes, monkeys, mythical creatures, birds and flowers. Designed and signed by the eminent French poster artist Georges Meunier, there are carved fish on the piano’s cheeks, carved lion head on the lid lock and it comes with a £150,000 price tag.
“People know I like the beautiful, the unusual and interesting,” says Melvin, who travels all over Europe to view and buy pianos, which are mostly restored by his small team in Leeds. “A few years ago, an Italian couple who had travelled to the showroom from Florence presented me with a picture of a piano they had found on the internet asking if I knew where they could find it. ‘It’s upstairs’, I said.”
Melvin started out as an art student living in Holbeck. During a period of unemployment back in the early 70s, he spent a fiver on an old upright piano and taught himself to play.
He then bought another piano for £15 and sold it for £25. “Back then there seemed to be a market among people who had grown up with music and wanted their children to have it too,” he says.
Soon his home was jam-packed and he had to find a warehouse. He went into business with his friend Steven Leeming and over time they became experts in the field.
Some years ago, a young Chinese student wandered into the showroom and asked if he could play one of the pianos. Wenbin Wu had been learning the piano, but there was no instrument to practice on in his student flat. At around the same time,
Melvin was receiving increasing numbers of enquiries from China for second-hand upright pianos.
“Anyone over there with a bit of money wants something with history attached to it,” says Melvin. “Yes, you can buy a brand new electric piano that will never lose its pitch, but nothing sounds as beautiful as an acoustic piano.”
Wu continued to practice at Besbrode, was later taken on to help with the burgeoning Far Eastern market, and is now head of Chinese sales. The company sold around 800 pianos last year. Yes, some were magnificent Steinways, but the lion’s share were sturdy, reliable ‘bog standard’ uprights, all destined for China.
As part of Besbrode’s support for the Leeds Piano Competition, which is held every three years, the company is providing 11 new Feurich pianos for the competitors’ rehearsals and nine uprights for the upcoming event Me and My Piano, which runs to September 10. The pianos have been decorated by local artists and will be available for anyone to play in public places around the city .
Melvin still loves going off on his “fishing expeditions” for pianos that need new homes. “It all came about accidentally, but one of the things that keeps me going is that people who buy pianos are generally really nice people. So are the people in our team.
“We’re just a small bunch of eccentrics, really.”