Dealers Speak About Their High-End Brands
IN ORDER TO GIVE prospective buyers of high-end pianos a better sense of the individual personalities of these brands, we will occasionally provide selected dealers, technicians, and pianists the opportunity to describe the musical and other qualities of the high-end brands they represent, service, or play. The brands presented will vary from issue to issue. As you'll see over time, although different writers often describe the same brands in very different ways, certain common themes are evident.
Robert Lowrey's Piano Experts
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Robert Lowrey's Piano Experts is proud to represent three of the world's top piano brands: Estonia, Schimmel, and Bösendorfer.
Each prospective buyer is different, and we strive to meet the individual needs of each. By asking a series of questions, we get a better idea of what those needs are and can point the buyer in an appropriate direction. Although the purchase of a fine instrument is obviously subjective, each of the above brands has certain characteristics that stand out and that therefore may make it more suitable for a particular client. At the end of the day, our greatest reward is to know that we have satisfied our client's needs, and even their dreams, with the best piano for that client.
We broadly divide the characteristics of pianos into five categories: tone, touch, price, prestige, and style.
Estonia is one of the best piano values today. As a dealer we find a surprising "underground" brand loyalty.
Tone: Strong and full, yet relatively warm.
Touch: Responsive but firm; works well for the strong player.
Price: A great advantage is allowing the purchaser to own a premium European grand for the price of a good, Asian-built, mass-produced grand.
Prestige: Estonia has rapidly earned the reputation of being one of the best instruments available. [Company owner] Dr. Indrek Laul has done a wonderful job of elevating the quality of these fine pianos.
Style: A number of select-grade cabinet woods are available, which adds to Estonia's appeal. Great attention to cabinet detail is evidenced by the finished underside and the felted music shelf.
Schimmel pianos are the favorite of most of our staff for both musical and technical reasons. Schimmel combines extremely high-quality craftsmanship with reasonably affordable price. It has become our best-selling brand, and is very well respected throughout Toronto's music community.
Tone: Schimmel has the rich, warm sound associated with a fine European piano. This is further enhanced by a unique "sparkle" that is not metallic in texture. We find Schimmel's tone to range from acceptable to preferred by almost all of our discriminating clients.
Touch: These instruments are perceived as fast, responsive, and perhaps slightly lighter in touch than some other brands.
Price: A great value for the demanding buyer.
Prestige: We often speak of Schimmel as "the rising star" in the piano business. Schimmel is unique in the industry for its innovative and technologically advanced engineering, which constantly moves Schimmel higher in the public's perception.
Style: Schimmel offers elegant, unique, and dynamic designs, including a number of art-case models — Pegasus, Otmar Alt, Plexiglas, and Nikolaus W. Schimmel Limited Edition, to name a few.
Bösendorfer, built in limited quantities, has for years been considered the premium piano, bar none! Many musicians who may play a more commercially available piano on stage personally own a Bösendorfer piano.
Tone: Bösendorfer's construction produces a delicate yet warm tone with surprisingly broad dynamic range. This is achieved in part by the piano's unique design, which integrates the soundboard with the body of the piano, much as in a fine cello or violin. We often refer to our Bösendorfers as being more akin to the string family of instruments than the percussion family.
Touch: Many of our clients who purchase Bösendorfers refer to their action as being very accurate, responsive, and "pleasing." We often hear the comment that "it plays itself."
Price: As expected with any product considered the very best, Bösendorfer is perhaps the most costly of today's pianos.
Prestige: Bösendorfer is chosen by two types of client: the very discriminating pianist who sometimes must sacrifice economically to own the ultimate piano, and the wealthy customer who wants the best of the best. Bösendorfer is one of the longest continuously made piano brands, and stands alone in reputation.
Style: Bösendorfer not only has many incredible designs and finishes, but will custom-make an instrument if desired. Some creative examples of their custom-
designed work include the Swarovski Edition, the F.A. Porsche design, and the Emperor.
R. Kassman Pianos Berkeley, California
At R. Kassman, our philosophy is to stock instruments of impeccable quality and craftsmanship but with different approaches to sound. Most European manufacturers have similar construction specifications, such as beech rims, Renner action parts, and Bavarian spruce soundboards, much as artists may use the same brand of paint or canvas. But, as with artists, the resulting instruments are often very different from each other in their sound and performance.
Our primary European lines are Blüthner, Steingraeber, and Sauter. Each of these companies meticulously handcrafts a limited number of instruments. Each has exacting standards for the quality of materials they use, and each has world-renowned craftsmen. Yet each also has a very different approach to sound and performance.
Steingraeber, perhaps the smallest of the companies we represent, has the most aggressive sound. By aggressive, I mean that its attack is powerful and explosive, from the impact of the hammer on the string to the long sustain time. Complementing that approach is the Steingraeber-designed Renner action, which is lightning-fast and easily regulated within a hair's breadth from the string, making it a precise interpreter of the artist's intentions. Powerful is one adjective our customers often use to describe these instruments. Pianists who have a heavy touch are often thrilled with the response of Steingraeber pianos.
Blüthner, on the other hand, while having impeccable pedigree in craftsmanship and construction materials, has a more pristine approach to sound. With a clear and concise voice, these instruments can whisper and shout with equal clarity. The Blüthner-designed Renner action is sensitive and immediately responsive to any pianistic demands, yet with a lighter touch than its comrades in this field. The aliquot (fourth string) in the treble adds a luster to the sound that is unequaled by any other piano in the world. Pianists with incredible technique often comment that this is the only piano they have played that truly and accurately responds to their demands.
Sauter is the favorite of many of our employees, and is often the piano that customers choose who have more than one pianist in the house. While its quality of craftsmanship is unquestioned, its ability to please almost any pianist is a valued hallmark. Its sound is clear without being austere, bell-like without being metallic, and powerful without being domineering. The Sauter-designed Renner action is ultra-responsive without being anticipatory, and forgiving while demanding prowess. The piano has a warm, friendly sound that is as at home with Bach as with Bacharach, Mozart as with Madonna, and Schubert as with Sondheim. Perhaps no other piano embodies the ability to please a pianist of any ilk or ability to the degree that Sauter has in every one of its line of instruments. Additionally, its line of pianos with cabinetry designed by Peter Maly has brought to our door a whole new breed of customer, who considers the piano as much a design piece as a superb musical instrument.
Merriam Music Toronto, Ontario, Canada
I have had the unique opportunity of representing most of the world's premium instruments during the past 25 years. At present, my store represents Fazioli, Grotrian, and Shigeru Kawai.
Speak to anyone who sells one, performs on one, or has played one, and you'll understand why, in a very short period, Fazioli has become a legend in its own time and has created an almost cult following. It was designed in the late 1970s by Paolo Fazioli, whose goal was to build a piano that sounded unlike any other ever built, and would satisfy the most discerning artists. Technicians love Faziolis for their integrity of workmanship, unique design, and stability; artists appreciate them for their unique palette of tonal color, balance, and great dynamic control. No other piano has more innovative technical designs, uses finer materials, or has better workmanship. It's definitely my favorite instrument, as it is for many others, including some of the world's greatest pianists.
With over 150 years of experience, Grotrian is one of the world's finest piano makers. Unlike some other German manufacturers, Grotrian has resisted the trend to build pianos offshore and instead has committed itself to building, entirely in Germany, a very limited number of the highest-quality pianos. The attention to detail and craftsmanship are evident the moment you begin to play. The Grotrian tone is very refined and sophisticated, immediately appealing, and quite unique. In side-by-side comparisons with other top brands, even inexperienced pianists will be impressed by the bell-like, singing tone, the clarity, and the depth of harmonics produced by a Grotrian. Even to this day, many top European conservatories and concert venues choose Grotrians, which suggests that anyone seriously shopping for a truly world-class instrument should make time to experience one for themselves.
Shigeru Kawai has finesse, control, and a very beautiful, clear, and rich tone that is usually heard only from much more expensive pianos. The Kawai action is extremely precise, which provides exceptional control of dynamics and tone. The materials are very fine, the quality control is extremely high, and the scale designs are beautifully balanced and musical. This piano certainly ranks among the finest built in the world today, but is priced to make it arguably the best-value premium instrument available.
Sara and Irving Faust
Faust Harrison Pianos New York, New York
Sara's search for the perfect piano began decades ago and evolved into what has become our life-work: setting the standard in restoring the legendary sound, touch, and look to vintage Steinway and Mason & Hamlin pianos. Our craftsmen work their magic in a highly specialized factory in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a short drive or train ride from our showroom in Manhattan. In addition to our rebuilt pianos, we've sold new pianos from many top makers. While we know all of these pianos intimately, our most extensive experience has been with rebuilt vintage Steinways and Mason & Hamlins, new Mason & Hamlins, and modern-day Estonias.
Rebuilt Vintage Steinways and Mason & Hamlins: For many years, beginning in the late 1800s, Steinway was the dominant manufacturer in the high-end piano sector. Their pianos had the highest esteem, the greatest recognition, and the largest following among professional pianists and lay people alike. People loved the wide array of tone colors, the multi-layered textures, and the extraordinary complexity of tone that were Steinway's hallmarks, and that to this day virtually no other piano can match. In 1900, Mason & Hamlin introduced a revolutionary new piano with a sound that was distinctive, yet in many ways very much like Steinway's. Its advanced structural features clearly distinguished it from all other pianos. For the next 50 years, these two companies produced some of the finest, most sought-after pianos ever built. The degrees of dynamic range that could be achieved by these pianos — from delicate, melodic whispers to hair-raising, thunderous chords — delighted countless audiences, and have yet to be surpassed. When a Steinway or Mason & Hamlin from this "vintage" era is properly restored, the result is a piano that is the first choice of many professional and advanced amateur pianists. The wonderfully responsive actions transmit nuances perfectly, but also have virtually unlimited capacity when a powerful player is in command. The warm, rich, orchestral sounds of these pianos continue to touch the hearts and souls of concertgoers every day.
Like many other piano makers, Mason & Hamlin went through a period in which its pianos were less than they should have been. But by the mid-1990s, to the delight of Mason & Hamlin fans, the concerted efforts of a small group of highly dedicated and passionate piano engineers and craftsmen had succeeded in resurrecting the substance and the essence of the great vintage Mason & Hamlins. The new-era Mason & Hamlins, designed to be as identical as possible to the great originals of the early 1900s (but with clear improvements, especially in the action), are a true joy to play and to hear. Their actions are as smooth as silk; the richness, power, and remarkable textures that defined the old Mason & Hamlins define the new ones as well. The Mason & Hamlin is the only important new piano we know of that has returned so faithfully to its roots, allowing us to truly re-experience the qualities of piano sound that thrilled both players and listeners a century ago.
The new star among pianos is, without a doubt, Estonia, completely re-created during the past dozen years by Estonian engineers under the direction of Indrek and Veno Laul. Closely resembling the Hamburg Steinway in both sound and touch, the Estonia combines, in one instrument, some of the best qualities of the great American pianos with those of the high-end Europeans. Its rich, full-bodied, and three-dimensional sound is American-like, whereas its purity and clarity are European-like. Its most distinguishing feature is its wonderfully sustaining, lyrical tone. More than anything else, it is this quality of tone that defines the Estonia piano and gives it its own special place in the high-end market.
Kurt Saphir Pianos Wilmette, Illinois
Kurt Saphir Pianos in Wilmette, Illinois, is a virtual paradise of high-end pianos. The company's clients, from beginners to professionals, have the unique opportunity to compare new pianos manufactured by Bechstein, Blüthner, Bösendorfer, Mason & Hamlin, Schimmel, and Charles Walter — all in a single showroom.
To evaluate each of these pianos is a task as formidable — and as enjoyable — as comparing some of the finest chocolates. Is it possible to find one better than another? Is it not just a matter of personal taste? Sitting before any of these instruments, knowing in advance that its quality is beyond question, and that one can give complete attention to one's personal preference without fear of inferior construction, offers artist and beginner alike the ability to evaluate and purchase with complete confidence.
When we at Kurt Saphir Pianos first played these instruments, we noticed considerable variation among us in opinions and preferences. While some felt that a Bösendorfer may be the perfect instrument for Debussy, others argued that the tone of a Bechstein enhances the melody of that composer's works. We then decided it would be interesting to ask our "professional critics" — including customers, piano instructors, and piano technicians — to fill out a completely subjective evaluation card while auditioning these instruments. We reminded them that this was strictly a personal opinion poll — there were no "right" or "wrong" answers.
We divided the brands into two groups by price. Group 1, which we present here, consisted of C. Bechstein, Blüthner, and Bösendorfer. Pianos of comparable size, all grands, were compared on the basis of a variety of qualities and characteristics. The pianos were given normal dealer prep, except that the factory voicing was retained. Where one brand strongly predominated for a given quality or characteristic, that brand is listed. Where more than one brand tended to be named, those brands are listed in decreasing order of preference. While this evaluation should definitely not be considered scientific, it does show that people perceive pianos differently; it also assists us in evaluating product lines.
Should one piano be considered better than another? We leave the final opinion to our "critics," whose comments were as varied as the personalities of the pianos.
- Which piano exhibits the most "power"?
- Which piano exhibits the most "clarity"?
- Which piano can best be described as having a "mellow tone"?
- Which piano is the most "resonant"?
- Which piano has the "lightest touch"?
Blüthner, C. Bechstein
- Which piano has a "moderate touch"?
Bösendorfer, C. Bechstein
- Which piano has a "heavy touch"?
- For classical performance, list in order of preference: Bösendorfer, Blüthner, C. Bechstein
- For jazz performance, list in order of preference: C. Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Blüthner
- List in order of name recognition (most to least): Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Blüthner.