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The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for
T A TIME when the price of a new, quality grand piano is often beyond the means of the typical family, a primary focus for me in my work as a piano teacher is to find pianos that are suitable for students looking to upgrade from entry-level uprights, used pianos, or digital keyboards to higher-quality instruments. It was particularly interesting, therefore, to be asked to write this review of lower-cost models from Kingsburg, a brand that I hadn't played before, made in Yantai, China.
Three pianos — two verticals and one grand — were prepared for sampling at the nearest Kingsburg dealer, German Piano City, in the Los Angeles suburb of Temple City. For this review, in addition to trying scales, chord progressions, and some improvisation on each piano, I brought with me several pieces of music with which to test each instrument: Scarlatti's Sonata in D Minor, K.141; Handel's Chaconne in G Major; Haydn's Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI: 23; Granados's The Maiden and the Nightingale; Chaminade's Concert Étude "Autumn," Op.35 No.2; and Bolcom's Graceful Ghost Rag. One of my adult students, Mary, joined me to offer her perspective.
This instrument has an attractive exterior look, its polished-ebony finish enhanced by an elegant, mahogany veneer on the inner rim and a decorative, gold, braided-rope lining surrounding the soundboard. The slow-close fallboard descends gently over the keys. I was initially impressed by the piano's clean, round sound quality — not overly bright or metallic. The instrument had been carefully prepped by the technician, so the touch was even across the keyboard.
Damper-pedal changes were executed with pinpoint precision, augmenting the instrument's already good sustain. As the brand-new hammers had yet to be broken in, the soft pedal had minimal effect in lowering the volume. The sostenuto pedal — an important feature of grand pianos not available in most uprights — functioned well; students who study advanced repertoire eventually need to use this pedal.
My primary reservations were with the instrument's narrow dynamic range and overly light touch, both of which added to the effort required to produce a wide palette of tonal colors. It took quite a bit of strength to coax a fortissimo from this piano; I can imagine that the average student might struggle to project a big sound. After playing the instrument, my adult student, Mary, arrived at a similar conclusion. Furthermore, while the bass remained rich at the louder dynamic levels, as I played harder, the treble grew more brittle and tinny. I expect, however, that as the hammers become harder with use, it will be easier to produce a bigger sound.
The Granados piece requires a wide dynamic range and finesse in its many dream-like passages. As I played through it, though I found the tonal colors acceptably complex, it took intense listening and experimentation with different touches to achieve the necessary gradations of volume and tone. Nevertheless, I was able to satisfactorily bring out the different musical voices in its chords.
Chaminade's "Autumn" is also a study in dynamic contrast. The opening and closing sections are lyrical and tranquil; the intense middle section depicts an autumn storm. While I found ample projection for the virtuoso middle section's fast chords, it was harder to control the softer ranges between mezzo piano and pianissimo in the opening and closing sections. The piano's touch was so light to begin with that it left little physical or interpretive space in which to go from light to lighter to lightest.
The Haydn and Scarlatti pieces require clean passagework and fast runs. I was able to produce the desired Classical clarity with the Haydn — runs came fluently and effortlessly — but the fast repeated notes of the Scarlatti posed a technical difficulty with this piano. For my taste, the keys didn't seem to return quickly enough.
I had only enough time to try the first page of the Bolcom rag, which is filled with big chords and octaves. Once again, the piano satisfactorily responded to my chord voicings; however, even with precise pedaling, the overall effect lacked the tonal complexity and richness suggested by Bolcom's textured writing.
My overall assessment of the KG-158 is that, priced in the same range as many Japanese uprights, it offers terrific value. With a true sostenuto pedal and grand-piano action, it would be a dramatic upgrade for the typical student currently playing an upright piano. My advice, however, is to have the hammers voiced, and the action adjusted for a heavier touch, to make available to the player both a wider dynamic range and more subtle gradations of dynamics within that range.
In contrast to the grand, my immediate reaction to Kingsburg's top upright model was to its powerful sound — so powerful that I had to close the lid to gain some control over the sound quality. The tone was solid but never shrill. I was pleasantly surprised by the soft pedal, as it substantially lowered the dynamic level without compromising the richness of sound. With this instrument, I was able to play scales and chord progressions clearly.
The Haydn sounded great on this upright, whose stout tone suited Classical sonatas to a T — and its clarity was stunning. The ability of the Scarlatti's repeated notes to repeat fast enough was a little suspect, but the keys responded with more consistency and reliability than on the KG-158. The quiet moments of the Granados sounded lovely on the KF-133, and the dynamic range was amazing. What a magnificent instrument!
This piano sang nicely. The Handel Chaconne is a set of variations on a chord progression, each variation projecting a different character and requiring various levels of cantabile playing and polyphony. In the KF-133, I found plenty of tonal richness without having to sacrifice clarity. Its damper pedal gave notes a gorgeous sustain and executed changes with precision, the latter a blessing when playing Baroque music.
I asked Mary to play a piece so that I could walk around the showroom and listen to the piano from different angles and distances. The sound was spectacular from anywhere in the room. This muscular instrument could instantly make a student sound larger than life. In any piano, I typically look for consistency of touch — very important for developing pianists studying at the intermediate level. For an upright, the KF-133 had a decent touch and offered an acceptable level of finger control.
The KF-133 has a lot to offer, musically and artistically. My two biggest concerns were with its overall loudness and the design of its music rack. The loudness could be a problem in a small room, or in attached housing, where neighbors might be disturbed. The music rack is unusual for an upright: substantially higher than most, it's placed about where a grand piano's music rack would be, and, like a grand's, it can be moved forward and back. However, the design of the KF-133's music rack sets books at an awkward angle, and could prevent thicker books from lying flat when open. In addition, a lip at the front of the shelf, undoubtedly designed to prevent single sheets of music from slipping off, could interfere with turning the pages of thicker books.
A smaller member of Kingsburg's KG series, the KG-125 had a comparatively mellow tone.
The piano's medium touch is ideal for Haydn and other Classical repertoire, and perfect for students just starting to learn sonatinas and Czerny exercises. I could play through fast passages without hindrance.
Unlike the music rack on the KF-133, the KG-125's rack is on the middle of the fallboard. The fallboard's top rail folds down, creating a continuous flat surface for books to lean against. With this construction, it's easy to write comments on music during practice or teaching.
Even with its many big chords, Bolcom's rag sounded modest on this piano, with a nice level of control and depth of colors. I had to work a little harder to achieve the balance of voices in the lyrical section of the Chaminade — it took a few attempts to find the softest touch at which sound could be produced on this piano without notes dropping out. I also found the repeated notes in the Scarlatti difficult to produce: there was almost a slight lag in the keys' response. Similarly, I had to work hard to find the right touch for the Handel, as how to bring out on this piano the Chaconne's simultaneous musical lines was not immediately obvious. However, with more practice, I found myself able to adjust to the instrument's touch.
Mary mentioned that the damper pedal didn't work efficiently. On closer inspection, I found that the KG-125 produced a lot of echoes, especially in the treble section. The higher the register, the more echoes I heard. The highest octave of notes sounded like tiny bells ringing inside a hollow box.
Overall, the KG-125 worked as an entry-level instrument for the serious beginner. It delivered an acceptable range of dynamics with a touch that was neither too stiff nor too light. The piano satisfied the demands of repertoire up to and including the intermediate level of difficulty.
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