Buying a High-End Piano
SINCE THE PIANO'S INVENTION by Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1700, its evolution has been driven by the desire to meet the changing musical needs of the times, by advances in technology, and by the business and marketing requirements of the piano manufacturers. High-end pianos exemplify this evolutionary process.
Early pianos were limited by the technology of the day to a lightweight structure, and a design that produced a tone — bright and intimate, but with short sustain and low volume — that evolved from the sound of the harpsichord. This complemented both the musical styles favored by the Classical period, especially chamber music, and the smaller, more intimate venues in which music was then customarily performed. As technology advanced, it became possible — using cast-iron plates, stronger strings, and higher-tension scale designs — to produce more robust instruments capable of filling a large hall with sound. This suited the composer-virtuosos of the Romantic period, such as Liszt and Brahms, whose works for the piano demanded from the instrument greater power, and the ability to be heard above the larger orchestras of the day. However, this louder, more overtone-filled sound could also conflict with and overpower other chamber instruments and their performance settings.
The great American pianos, having come of age during the Romantic era, tend toward the Romantic tonal tradition. The great European piano makers, however, embedded in a culture steeped in centuries of musical tradition, have long had to satisfy the conflicting tonal styles of different ages, and this has resulted in a wide variety of instruments with different musical qualities. As the American market for European pianos grows, the European companies are further having to reconcile remaining true to their own traditions with evolving to please the American ear. While all brands make full use of technological advances and are capable of satisfying diverse musical needs, some tend toward a more pristine tone, with plush but low-volume harmonics, perfect for chamber music or solo performances in small rooms; others are bright and powerful enough to hold their own above the largest symphony orchestras; and many are in between.
The good news is that the best way to find the right piano for you is to play as many as you can — a simply wonderful experience!
What follows is a story with a valuable perspective from a well-respected dealer of performance-quality instruments.
THE BEST PIANO: A Story
by Ori Bukai
I'm tone deaf," declared the husband. "I can't tell the difference between one piano and another."
His wife nodded in agreement. "He is tone deaf. And while I can hear some differences, it's all so confusing. All we want is a piano that our kids can learn to play on. We don't need a great piano."
A short conversation ensued in which I learned, among other things, that this couple had three children, ranging in age from seven years to six months.
"Our daughter just turned seven," the wife said. "She's interested in piano lessons, but we're not sure how committed she'll be."
"You know kids," the husband shrugged. "She may want piano lessons now, but in a few months' time ...?"
"You're right," I said. "Kids change their minds all the time. I started piano lessons at the age of six, and stopped only a few months later. But the piano stayed in our home, and at the age of 12 I was drawn back to it. I played a few tunes by ear, and after a while I started lessons again. But ... would you like your youngest child to play the piano as well?"
They looked at each other. It seemed that the possibility of their six-month-old baby taking lessons sometime in the future was something they hadn't considered.
"This means that whatever instrument we choose, it will probably stay in our home for a very long time," the woman said to her husband. "Perhaps we should look at a greater range of instruments than just the few we had in mind ... ?"
"But still," he said, turning to me, "is there enough difference in the tone of the pianos to justify a greater investment, and a possible increase in our budget?"