I enjoyed the feel of the action; it felt very free, and it was easy to execute trills and passagework. On this well-regulated action, I was finally able to enjoy playing the Scarlatti. This was, perhaps, the most enjoyable of the actions I played for this review.
All three pedals seemed fine, and the una corda produced a nice tonal shift that was not too shocking a contrast.
Hailun 198 (6' 5")
The Hailun had good sustain in the treble. The tone didn't decay too quickly and wasn't thin. But, as with the Brodmann, the tone lacked color and just wasn't that interesting. There was very good clarity in the high treble, however, and the piano in general was evenly voiced. Debussy's "Pour les huits doigts" Étude is filled with rapid scale passages that are supposed to blend seamlessly into one another; it worked well on this instrument, whose tone never got "nasty" or too bright. My impression of the Hailun's tone was probably influenced by the showroom acoustic, which was slightly drier than the others I had visited — besides the carpeting, the ceilings were lower.
The transition from treble to bass was very good. The resonance and clarity of the bass strings were very impressive, especially in the lowest notes. This may have been influenced by the instrument's size: three or four inches longer than the others I tried. Bartók's "With Drums and Pipes" was really fun to play on this piano. The tone was very resonant in the lowest bass octave; above that it was still good, but not as thrilling. The dynamic range throughout was quite good, though I would have enjoyed greater variety at the soft end of the dynamic spectrum.
For the most part, the Hailun action was enjoyable to play and musically responsive. There were distracting noises, however, from a number of notes in various registers of the piano when the sustain pedal was depressed. And when I depressed the una corda pedal, I heard little difference in volume or color.
I'm not an expert on piano cabinetry and hardware, but in general, I was impressed with this aspect of all the pianos I reviewed. All the lids except that of the Ritmüller were quite heavy to lift, however, and I'm used to lifting the lids of 7' and 9' grands. The music desks of the Ritmüller and the Perzina were fitted too tightly to be easily removed and replaced, and the propstick on the Heintzman didn't fit well to the lid. Other than these minor issues, however, the finish, hardware, and cabinetry seemed fine.
To conclude, given the good quality of pianos being made today in China and elsewhere in Asia, it is interesting and only natural to wonder whether a high-end piano such as a Steinway is worth five times as much as one of the instruments reviewed, and whether the Chinese instruments would be suitable for an advanced pianist such as myself. Clearly, a pianist looking to upgrade from an old upright or an electronic keyboard will find a wider range of dynamic and orchestral possibilities with these pianos, especially if the instrument has been voiced well. The Chinese pianos allow a pianist to perform the full range of piano repertoire and technique. Composers from Bach and Beethoven to Chopin and Liszt, as well as jazz, contemporary, and popular music, can sound quite good on these instruments. I can imagine that a pianist looking to develop his or her technique could grow a lot while practicing on any of these pianos.
As a concert pianist, I have spent most of my performing life adapting to whatever piano is put in front of me in a concert space. I was trained to get the most out of any piano, even if it meant imagining and trying to create a sound different from what was emanating from the instrument I was playing. But if I could no longer perform on a high-end piano, or at least practice on one at home, my musical existence would feel quite barren.
I think the main quality I missed in all five pianos was tonal color and complexity. I am used to working with a whole world of tonal color that I just did not experience with these instruments, or did not experience as fully throughout the entire keyboard as I do with more expensive pianos. To me, this is what separates pianos that are simply very good — which these are — from those that are superb. That said, for those whose needs are not at the concert level, these professional-size pianos from China offer tremendous value for the money, and can take a pianist very far in his or her musical training.
Judith Cohen began playing the piano at the age of five, and studied at the Chicago Musical College until the age of 18. She has been a prizewinner in numerous piano competitions throughout the world, and regularly performs, especially in the Pacific Northwest, as soloist, with orchestras, and in chamber ensembles. Since 1989, Ms. Cohen has served as Artistic Director of the Governor's Chamber Music Series in Seattle, Washington, where she resides with her husband, piano technician Steve Brady. Ms. Cohen has been a Steinway artist since 2005. For more information, visit her website at www.judithrcohen.com.