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DR. OWEN LOVELL, Piano Review Editor

FOR A GENERATION of pianists, piano buyers, technicians, and retailers, the mid-level grand pianos made by Kawai have achieved benchmark status among mass-produced instruments. These pianos have historically offered levels of quality, performance, and value that less well-established or cheaper brands have aspired to match, and are often purchased as less-expensive substitutes for instruments costing twice as much.

In the past two years, model lines have been revised: Kawai's RX-BLAK series is now called GX-BLAK. With the assistance of the company, I had a chance to do side-by-side comparisons between the new models and their immediate predecessors. How have their tone, touch, and/or appearance changed? Can the changes be described as evolutionary or revolutionary? My observations follow.

Kawai GX-2 vs. RX-2

Unveiled at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) 2013 trade show, Kawai's GX series of grand pianos evolved from the company's venerable RX series. At NAMM, Piano Buyer staff members had a chance to speak with Kawai's technical and marketing representatives about the instruments, and briefly tried each new model.

Long an unabashed proponent of the use, in piano actions, of plastic and composite materials as alternatives to wood, Kawai has a history of frequently updating its acoustic piano models. Those familiar with past Kawai grand models will recall the introduction, in 1996, of the RX series with its Ultra Responsive action made of ABS Styran, updated in 2004 with the carbon-fiber–reinforced Millennium III action; and, in 2010, the introduction of a resin-reinforced hammer shank in the RX-BLAK series action. Other Kawai grand series include the entry-level GM models, the cost-efficient and slightly larger GE pianos, and the limited-production, high-end Shigeru Kawai series.

Although, as of this writing, new RX-BLAK instruments can still be found in some dealer inventories, the GX-BLAK series pianos have begun to appear, and will ultimately replace the RX models. The GX models have longer keys than the equivalent RX pianos, which Kawai says provides better touch control, similar to that of a larger piano, and lengthens some GX models by about an inch. The GX pinblock is fitted to the plate, overlapped by the stretcher, and anchored to the rim of the piano for greater tuning stability and rigidity. Soundboard tapering and string scaling have been changed slightly. Kawai also notes for the GX an updated rim construction, called Konsei Katagi, of alternating layers of small- and large-pore hardwoods: one for power and projection, the other for warmth. The finishes, materials, and quality control are otherwise identical.

While I was visiting the Boston area, Kawai provided me the opportunity to try — at Piano Mill, a dealer in Rockland, Massachusetts — old and new versions of one model in this series: the 5' 10" RX-2 BLAK (a Piano Buyer "Staff Pick") and the 5' 11" GX-2 BLAK.

The keys of the GX-BLAK models are about one inch longer than those of their predecessors, the RX-BLAKs. Both use Kawai’s carbon-fiber–reinforced Millennium III action. From this player's perspective, these instruments have very similar tonal characteristics: good clarity of the low bass for the size, a relatively smooth transition from copper-wound bass strings to plain-wire tenor strings (often a weakness in smaller pianos), and a treble tone without harsh attack sound unless pushed to the absolute dynamic limit. The treble section exhibits an adequate amount of sustain, a slight sense of warmth that's missing from the sound of many other Asian pianos, and a dynamic range obviously intended for rooms of small to moderate size. Even so-called "mass-produced" pianos are never identical to a discerning ear, and the RX-2 I tested had a more focused sound than the slightly woollier-sounding GX-2 nearby, though the tonal resemblance of the two instruments was otherwise unmistakable. Both pianos were finished in polished ebony, and shared the same adjustable music-desk design with aluminum reinforcement and a hard finish that seem to hold up well in real-world use.

Not surprisingly, given the increase in key length, it's the performance of its action that distinguishes the new GX-2 from the RX-2. The differences in responsiveness and touch control are subtle; I'll try to describe them using a familiar piece of repertoire. Haydn's Piano Sonata in G major, Hob. XVI:6, a favorite early Classical work of my former teacher that I learned at the start of my doctoral studies many years ago, has never left my fingers. Ebullient and light in style, and littered with decorations, it requires great dexterity at the fingertip level and little use of arm weight. In terms of interpretation, the sonata seems to beg for additional ornamentation at the performer's whim with each successive section repeat or da capo, and even a short cadenza or two placed after dramatic fermatas in the slow movement. The very sparsely notated second movement, a minuet and trio, easily incites in me a level of florid ornamentation that borders the fringes of good stylistic taste and drives my technique and the capabilities of the piano to the limits of control and intelligibility. In short, this sonata is perfect for this comparison.

Setting the keys into motion — for example, when carefully balancing the left-hand chords of the slow movement — required a subtly more deliberate effort on the RX-2 than on the GX-2. In actual playing, I found that very fast passages tended to "speak" a little more readily on the GX-2. For example, the RX-2 would repeat and reproduce fast passages with a high degree of competence, but in the ornamented second movement, and in the terrifically rapid finale, I found myself analyzing my posture and hand shape to reliably reproduce notes in passages that demanded the most finger dexterity — not so with the GX-2. Kawai notes that a very subtle difference provided by the longer keys of the GX-2 is greater leverage — and, by association, control — when playing the shorter black keys, or when striking the keys farther in toward the fallboard, something pianists often must do.

With the new GX-BLAK series, Kawai has subtly upgraded one of the most popular series of mid-level grand pianos. The GX-BLAK action merges the company's penchant for high-technology materials with easy playability that will please both novice and professional pianists; these qualities, combined with the pleasant tonal attributes and modest size of the RX-2, make the evolved GX-2 a worthy successor and a Piano Buyer "Staff Pick."

Dr. Owen Lovell is an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He concertizes frequently as a soloist, chamber musician, and advocate of new music. For more information, visit his website at www.owenlovell.com.



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