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hen I was asked to review some new instruments from the German piano maker August Förster, I recalled my last encounter with this brand. Several years ago, I made two trips to Tajikistan, a country that had been, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, riven by low-grade civil conflict, and from which many of the Russians who had supported musical culture had fled. Along with a number of concert instruments by Blüthner, August Förster had been one of the main suppliers of better-quality instruments to the farther reaches of the Soviet Union; these were still around but unmaintained — and, I assumed, not representative of that maker's best new work.
The most memorable encounter I had with a Förster was with a 9' concert grand in the grand Kamoli Theater, in the northern Tajik city of Khujand, known as Leninabad in Soviet times. Leninabad had been one of the closed nuclear cities of the U.S.S.R., and so had been relatively well off, culturally and financially. After independence, Khujand had of course lost that distinction, but was still important as an outpost in the Fergana Valley, a crossroads of Central Asia. The piano I met that day in Khujand had seen better days. I learned, before arriving at the hall, that they'd had to pull the piano tuner out of retirement — no one had looked after the instrument in any meaningful way in years. When I arrived at the hall, the tuner looked apologetic and somewhat abashed at what he could present to me: a concert grand whose lyre was left with only one pedal. I looked at it, heart in mouth, hoping that it was the right pedal — in fact, it was. But the pedal rod was not properly attached, a deficiency I quickly fixed (at least the rod was still there!).
In the end, the concert was a success, so this story ends up being a compliment to the work of August Förster: Under the worst possible circumstances, an older instrument built during Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc, and that hadn't been maintained, was able to work well enough to allow me to play a difficult program for a packed (if somewhat unruly) house. Although I'd seen a number of other Försters in travels in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, this was the only one I played a concert on. I'd heard nothing of August Förster since that trip, so it was a surprise to get the call, six years after my visit to Khujand, to review a couple of their new instruments.
After World War II, when East Germany became part of the Soviet bloc, Förster was allowed to continue to manufacture in its own factories. That continuity is part of the company's sales pitch: a long and distinguished history of piano manufacture. It may or may not account for the excellence of their current product, but at least it says that Försters remain European pianos. They also make a point of saying that their pianos are manufactured entirely in Germany — a mark of pride in these days of outsourced manufacturing, when a number of big-name American brands are manufactured in Asia, including even some pianos sold under the aegis of the venerable Steinway name.
I live in Boulder, Colorado, where I teach at the University of Colorado. One of our local dealers, Woods & Son Piano Company, in Brighton, Colorado (www.woodspiano.com), has a reputation for excellent piano preparation and service. For years I'd wanted to visit, and this was the opportunity: Woods & Son is one of the top dealers for August Förster in the U.S., and Joe Woods, the proprietor, had two grand pianos for me to try out: a model 190 (6' 4") and a model 215 (7' 2"). Woods's operation is located at his home — "in the middle of nowhere," as he jokingly admitted. He was generous with his time, and allowed me to play the pianos as long as I liked, and to explore, by way of comparison, other instruments in his showroom. I had just returned from a trip to Japan, where I had performed a program of Schubert, Hindemith, Ravel, Bach, Liszt, and Chopin, as well as a Mozart concerto. This repertoire gave me a wide range of possibilities for putting these pianos through their paces.
I began with the smaller instrument. At 6' 4", the Förster 190 is about the same size as both a Steinway A and the 1980s-vintage Baldwin L I have in my home. My immediate impression of the 190 was that it was in a class closer to what I'd expect from a 7' piano in terms of breadth of sound and projection. The sound was what I associate with a German tonal aesthetic — direct and clear, with lots of higher partials — but well enough balanced that it was not too hard on the ears, as German pianos can sometimes be. The piano had a warm sound for a modern European instrument — much closer to the style of a Hamburg Steinway than to a Bechstein, but with the latter's quicker response. My test pieces here were Schubert's B-flat major, G-flat major, and A-flat major Impromptus (Op. 142 No. 3 and Op. 90 Nos. 3 and 4); Ondine, from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit; Chopin's Barcarolle and Berceuse; and some excerpts from Mozart's Concerto No.15 in B-flat, K.450.
Ondine is a tough test for any instrument; it demands an agile and very even response at the softest level, as well as the finest control of volume and colors, especially at the lower end of the dynamic range. This Förster passed with flying colors, allowing me to play with great ease and fluency, and producing a remarkably pleasing tone, with sufficient ring and bloom to make long phrases come through beautifully. The overall sound was transparent enough to allow the clarity necessary in so much French music of this period.
With the Schubert Impromptus, things were somewhat less perfect. The G-flat Impromptu requires the same kind of feats of balance as the Ravel, but in the middle and lower registers of the piano. Here the clarity wasn't sufficient to make my task as easy, although the resources were certainly there to do what needed to be done. In addition, the quality of the sound didn't quite meet my hopes for Schubert, where I look for more warmth — a basic sound balanced more toward the resonance of wood than of metal. In the B-flat Impromptu, the fast passages in the final variation were wonderfully even and clear, but again, the sound didn't respond as I'd hoped at the darker end of the tonal spectrum in the B-flat minor and G-flat major variations. On the other hand, the thick textures of the minor-key variation were easy to handle.
The Chopin, falling somewhere between the Ravel and Schubert on the color spectrum, was not hard to play, although some of the larger moments were tricky to balance. (Of course, that's true, in my experience, with almost any piano.) Mozart was easy to play on this piano, with excellent clarity of articulation, and easy projection of passagework in the mid-treble range.
I moved on to the larger Förster, the model 215, and was immediately blown away by the sound. This instrument, at 7' 2", is between a Steinway B (6' 10½") and a Shigeru Kawai SK-7 (7' 6") in size. However, the Förster belies its size, with a response comparable to that of many larger instruments, and in terms of feel, it's much closer to the Shigeru, and plays as if it's as big. The sound is pleasantly burnished while still clear. The bass is rounder than that from many comparable European instruments, and the sound seemed to have more bloom than many a Hamburg Steinway. In fact, the bloom and projection make the 215 feel more like a full-size concert grand. The sound problems I'd found in the Schubert pieces on the smaller model were not problems here — the 215 maintained the 190's clarity, but with more depth and darker colors available — and I found it easy and effortless to voice the softer balances in the G-flat Impromptu. The action response was similar to that of the 190, and Ravel worked quite well on this instrument, too. One interesting feature of this piano is that a corner of the soundboard's tail floats, rather than being attached to the rim, as is typical. This may be partly responsible for the beauty and roundness of the bass.
Going back and forth between the two models gave me the opportunity to appreciate their different strengths. The longer bass strings of the larger 215, which Förster advertises as a "concert grand," provided the expected added depth of sound; it was a good all-around instrument suitable for use in a small concert hall of 100–300 seats. It could also work in a home or salon, although probably best in one with a reasonably high ceiling. The model 190 would make an excellent home instrument. Its transparency in Mozart and Ravel was almost preferable to me in the showroom space where I was playing, but I suspect the larger instrument would please me even more in a hall.
All in all, I found myself impressed with the quality of both instruments. I enjoyed exploring the 215's tonal range, and both models featured sounds that would wear well, with plenty of opportunities for modulating color. Mechanically, they felt solid and well made, with good response from the keyboard and all three pedals. And they're beautiful to look at, with lovely exterior finishes, and birds-eye maple veneer on the inner rims. The treble strings are all individually tied off (not loop strung). These August Förster models are worthy of their high prices, and compete well with similarly sized instruments from Steinway, the Yamaha CF series, and Shigeru Kawai. The Försters have their own voice, however, different from those three companies — something I find especially pleasing in a concert world dominated by so few piano makers.
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