Review: The Best Chinese Professional-Size Grands
FOR THIS ISSUE'S PIANO REVIEW, Piano Buyer asked concert pianist Judith Cohen to try out five of the highest-rated Chinese grands between 6' and 6' 6" long. This is a size range of piano commonly used by professionals — larger than the pianos in most homes, but smaller than those found on concert stages. The author concludes by commenting on the tradeoff between price and performance when considering whether to purchase a moderately priced or a high-end instrument. — Editor
Every time I perform a concert, I have to evaluate, analyze, and sum up my impressions of the instrument put before me. I often have less than 15 minutes of quality time to spend with the piano. The hall acoustic is always a factor in my assessment, as well as the type of concert: solo piano, chamber music, concerto with orchestra, etc. Unfortunately, even if there is an excellent piano technician nearby, he or she is rarely given the time to change anything once the piano is in its performance position on stage.
For this article, I have enjoyed the process of trying out and evaluating five different pianos without the pressure of actually having to give a concert on any of them! My responses, opinions, and reactions to each instrument are as a performing pianist, not as a piano technician or builder. Like most pianists, I have very little knowledge of this most complex and mysterious mechanism. I know that technicians often speak a different "language" from pianists, but we need each other, and must appreciate our differences.
I decided I would try each instrument with a variety of repertoire spanning close to three centuries of piano music, from Domenico Scarlatti (who had at least five early pianos in his inventory at the time of his death) through Bartók, and including Beethoven and Debussy.
Scarlatti's sonatas K.14 in G Major and K.33 in D Major are full of light, quick passagework, and instantly give a pianist an impression of how responsive a piano action is, how good the repetition might be, and how easy or difficult it is to control. The Beethoven Bagatelles, Op.126, contain long lyrical lines. The pianist can feel and hear how well the tone sustains, and how easily a sense of melodic line can be created. This is always a challenge for pianist and piano — one needs a legato touch, pedaling finesse, and an instrument that "sings." I always hope for a piano with a long tonal sustain, as well as tonal color and complexity. This is very subjective, of course — especially the perception of color — and not all pianists experience tone in the same way.
I always love playing a couple of Debussy Études, such as "Pour les huits doigts" or the "Arpeggio." These fiendishly difficult works encompass an instrument's extreme bass and treble, and give the pianist a sense of its possibilities in dynamic range and color. Debussy's music requires a tremendous variety of volume levels in the softer dynamic ranges. I can always predict how softly I will be able to play on an instrument after just a few minutes of Debussy's subtle and exquisite music.
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók has long been a favorite composer of mine. His music demands rhythmic precision and control of articulation. I am always able to tell how much subtlety of articulation (varieties of staccato, accents, two-note slurs, tenuto, portato, etc.) I can execute on an instrument after playing Bartók. I like to try "With Drums and Pipes," one of the movements from his Out of Doors suite. Besides being, rhythmically, lots of fun to play, this piece uses the lowest bass notes of the piano for the "drum" effect. Instantly I can hear how much resonance, power, and color I can expect from the lower bass.
Ritmüller GH-188R (6' 2")
I was more impressed with the Ritmüller's tonal color, and its sustained singing quality in the midtreble, than with those of any of the other instruments reviewed. The tone didn't decay as rapidly as with some Asian pianos I've played, and the tonal color was more complex and varied — characteristics that made playing the Beethoven Bagatelles enjoyable on this instrument.
The clarity of the high treble was good, though too bright for my taste. The transition from the bass up through the tenor and lower treble strings was smooth, and the resonance and clarity of pitch in the low bass were quite good. I noticed that the showroom's acoustic was flattering (high ceilings) but not overwhelming (carpeted floors).