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EVERAL WELL-MADE small and medium-sized grand pianos are now available from Chinese manufacturers at a considerable savings to consumers over their American and European counterparts, and even over most other Asian models. Piano Buyer decided to take advantage of the large number of piano manufacturers exhibiting at this year's Winter NAMM, the music-industry trade show in Anaheim, California, by having me test-drive some of the reputedly better Chinese brands. I concentrated on the most popular sizes suitable for the home. The manufacturers were alerted to my impending visit so that they could prepare the instruments to perform their best. While any of the pianos I tried would be a good choice, I did come away with favorites.
The May Berlin 5' 4" and 6' 2" grands are made in China for German piano maker Schimmel. A German master technician told me that the regulation and voicing of these instruments are rough when they arrive from China, and a lot of finishing work is performed in Germany before the pianos are shipped to dealers. (Good "prep," or musical finishing, can make an enormous difference in a piano's performance.) The 5' 4" model I played had a clear treble register and decent dynamic range throughout, but its bass was somewhat muddy and the bass/tenor break was rough. The 6' 2" piano has a stringing scale based on the Steinway Model A — five notes above the break are strung with wound bicords (two strings per note). This makes the transition from the 20-note bass to the tenor very smooth. However, I noticed a drop in volume in the second and third octaves above middle C — which can be a weakness in some Steinways as well. This instrument had a light, crystalline sound and a fairly good dynamic range.
Heintzman is a Canadian-based company that had a long and illustrious history in Canada before transplanting its manufacturing to China in the 1990s. The company says the pianos are still made to the original Canadian designs. The Heintzman model displayed in the size range we were interested in was 5' 6" long. Its treble register was crystalline and pleasing, its action light and easy to control. However, the bass was comparatively muddy and lacked the color of the soprano. Also, the sound decayed fairly quickly.
Although the Dutch-based Perzina company moved its piano manufacturing from Germany to China in the late 1990s, it continues to use European parts and design. Perzina exhibited two sizes of grand at the show: 5' 3" and 6' 1". Both displayed excellent dynamic range and lovely color nuances in close harmonies. The break from bass to tenor was even and all registers on both instruments were evenly balanced, which made them fun to play. But I was disappointed with the sustain, especially in the 6' 1" model. Also, I felt I had to work hard to control the sound, probably due to the somewhat heavier actions.
My second-place favorites were two Palatino grands (5' 9" and 6' 2") from AXL, which manufactures a full line of musical instruments in its modern, automated factories. The 5' 9", with Abel hammers, had a wide dynamic range and moderately good sustain. The action was exceedingly light — I felt as if this instrument were playing itself. The tenor/high-bass range (the 1½ octaves below middle C) was especially pretty on this piano, and I enjoyed playing it. The 6' 2" features Renner hammers and had a warm, lyrical sound, especially in the two octaves above middle C, where most melodies are played. Overall, the action is a little heavier than on the 5' 9", but not objectionably so, and some pianists may prefer that.
The 5' 10" grand from Hailun tied with the Palatinos for second place. Chinese entrepreneur Chen Hailun, determined to make his mark on the piano world, has hired piano-design engineers from around the world to work with him. In this 5' 10" model, American engineer Frank Emerson, formerly with Baldwin and Mason & Hamlin, has produced a piano with a very clear sound throughout, and an especially rich and pleasing bass. The break from the bass to the tenor was notable for its smoothness, and I found it easy to bring out the inner voices of complex chords in a Brahms piece I played. The responsive action and wide dynamic range of this instrument will satisfy many discriminating players.
My hands-down favorites in this category were the redesigned Ritmüller grands made by Pearl River, available in three sizes: one small (5' 3") and two medium (5' 8", 6' 2"). Except for the fancier cabinet styles available in the Ritmüller line, most of the Ritmüller grands were pretty much the same as the Pearl River grands — until this year, when the line underwent a complete redesign overseen by Luther Thomma, a German piano designer who began his career at Bechstein. For the new models, Thomma created new rims, plates, and stringing scales. The rims all have rather wide, flat-nosed tails, a shape that allows the bass bridge to be placed farther from the rim. In addition, the tails of the bass strings, between the back bridge pins and the hitch pins, are longer. This arrangement permits the bass bridge to vibrate more freely, among other things giving the bass sound greater clarity. Although this phenomenon was amply demonstrated by all three pianos, it was especially noticeable on the 5' 3" model, which lacked the "muddy" bass often characteristic of small grands. The new Ritmüllers also have solid spruce soundboards and vertically laminated bridges, better-quality features that arguably enhance tonal color.
I liked the sound quality and sustain of all the Ritmüller models. The medium-tension stringing scale avoids the excessive high harmonics and inharmonicity characteristic of the higher-tension scales sometimes found in modern pianos, producing instead a clear, bell-like, uncomplicatedly "European" sound. And these models' light, responsive action makes it easy to attain a great dynamic range from very soft to very loud and full.
[We also wanted to review the Brodmann grands, designed in Vienna and built in China of European components, but the company did not display at this year's trade show. We'll catch up with them later. — Ed.]
|May Berlin||M 162||5' 4"||16,490|
|M 187||6' 2"||18,890|
[Note that models, prices, and specifications may have changed since this article was first published. See www.pianobuyer.com for current information.]
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