Review: Performance-Grade ‘Value Pianos’
For this review, I asked two professional pianists, Dr. Owen Lovell and Adrean Farrugia, both active members of the Piano World online community, to play and write about the pianos I have labeled as “Group 3” instruments: performance-grade pianos that lie at the less costly end of the price spectrum (for more information on the “Group” rating system, see “The New Piano Market Today,” elsewhere in this issue of Piano Buyer.) The task was divided up, and the specific instruments to review were chosen, largely on the basis of which brands and models were available in each reviewer’s geographic area. Permission to audition the pianos was requested from the respective dealers, who were also given the opportunity to prepare the pianos to show their best. — Editor
Dr. Owen Lovell
The professional pianist or piano teacher shops for an instrument in ways that differ slightly from how a consumer goes about purchasing a piano for casual home use. For one thing, because our job is to continually improve our own and/or others’ playing, it’s our nature to be critical, and find faults in almost any instrument in any price range. Many of us have the pleasure of regularly concertizing, rehearsing, teaching, or practicing on grand pianos of considerable size. It’s unfair but inevitable that we will make comparisons between more sensibly sized instruments for small spaces, and those built with fewer compromises and intended for a concert stage.
For another, when auditioning pianos at a store, pianists generally expect the instrument to be in tune and the action to be in an acceptable state of regulation. It’s impossible to fairly evaluate the tone of an out-oftune piano or the touch of an action with sticking keys, no matter how elegant the sales pitch or how glossy the brochure. I tend to be a little less of a shopper driven by price alone; good dealer prep, post-sale support, and a variety of quality instruments to try in-store simply cost a little more. Since we often live with our piano purchases for decades, pianists tend to eschew buying instruments sight unseen, and may return to a store multiple times before making a final decision.
The models reviewed from Group 3 represent a unique range of tonal concepts that you may find more interesting than those of well-respected makes from the Far East. The piano I practice on at home, a tall upright, is a member of this tier of instruments. As there are no piano dealers who currently stock Group 3 brands in my corner of rural Wisconsin, I traveled to the “big city” of Minneapolis, as well as to Rochester, Minnesota, where I was assisted by Ackerman’s Piano Sales, Jim Laabs Music, and Petit Music. Audition material for this review consisted of solo music from all major stylistic periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary, and a little jazz.
Models P-III, P-IV, P-V, and P-135
Petrof’s 5’2″ model P-V was surprisingly powerful for its size, with a perfectly even treble register that projected well. The tone was rich, full, and a bit reminiscent of some better U.S.-made Baldwin grands. The action was easy to control, well regulated, and among the better ones I’ve experienced on a small piano. Of course, any short grand will have tonal limitations, and this was evidenced in the model P-V by a lack of low-bass presence, and a mid-tenor section that had a slightly nasal quality. I particularly enjoyed this piano for late Romantic repertoire.
The larger, 5′ 7″ model P-IV seemed well suited for a moderately sized living room; it had some of the tonal virtues of its larger siblings, but a more sensible dynamic range for home use. It also had a characteristic Petrof tonal trait: The treble section had a noticeable bell-like quality, clear and bright. As expected, the bass/tenor transition was handled more smoothly in this instrument than in the smaller P-V model, but could still be detected. Minor quibbles included a little tactile roughness at the corners of the keys, and an action that wasn’t quite as finely regulated as in the other Petrof grands I tried. This piano was particularly at home with French Impressionist repertoire.
The 6′ 3″ model P-III seemed a perfect match for Chopin’s music from the moment I started playing it. The bell-like treble sustained and distinguished my melodic lines, while the tenor and bass sections were full, well balanced, and supportive. The dynamic capability and substantial projection of this piano would make it a good candidate for a larger living room, classroom, or small recital hall or sanctuary. Also notable with this newer-production example was a visually striking wood veneer on the inner rim. Again, there was a slight roughness at the corners of the keys, and the action, though certainly fine, was not quite as precise as those of competing Japanese models. However, the sparkling treble tone of this instrument was unique, attractive, and left a lasting impression.
The 53″ model P-135, among the largest upright pianos in production today, is a large-sounding instrument for those who don’t wish to sacrifice the space required by a grand piano. Interesting features include a true sostenuto pedal (rare among uprights) and a lever-activated practice mute. This upright possessed the tonal attributes of Petrof’s grands: the treble section sang beautifully with that signature bell-like sound, while the bass section was smooth and supportive — very capable without being overbearing. Although the action design of an upright piano is less desirable than that of a grand, the P-135’s action had a substantial feel to it that would satisfy many advanced pianists. Transitions between registers in this large upright were handled better than in many makers’ small grand models.
Models 1520 and 175
It would be easy for a “serious” pianist to overlook the Indiana-made Charles R. Walter model 1520 upright — its furniture-style cabinet and diminutive 43″ stature may evoke memories of lesser, marginal-quality American consoles of decades ago. However, playing one was an experience wholly different from what I expected! The tone was full and rich, with a singing quality through the middle range of the instrument. The action was substantial and surprisingly weighty for a small upright, with good control and responsiveness throughout. The dynamic range was very satisfying, belying this piano’s small size. It sounded great with lush, Romantic repertoire. As with most smaller pianos, the transition through the tenor to the bass range wasn’t seamless — I could tell when the sound moved to the wound bichord strings — but it wasn’t terribly distracting, either. Overall, it would not be an overstatement to say that the Walter upright is the nicest 43″ piano I’ve ever played. It also comes in a 45″ version (model 1500) — identical to the 43″ except for the cabinet. Either would be a great choice for a practice room, small classroom, or space-limited home.
The 5′ 9″ model 175 grand was the tonal opposite of the European pianos I auditioned for these reviews. The sound was more rounded, with less of a sense of attack. When pushed to its dynamic limits, the 175 didn’t sound edgy, bright, or percussive. It produced a healthy orchestral forte in Beethoven sonatas that seemed to work well stylistically. Also notable was a low-bass tone that was unusually clear for a piano of this size, and a uniquely designed system for adjusting the angle of the music desk. I perceived the action to be on the heavy side (note: due to psychoacoustic effects, a pianist’s perception of the tone as “dark” can contribute to an action’s seeming “heavy”), but it rewarded good technique with responsiveness. Minor nits to pick included a very stiff damper pedal spring, and a slightly perceptible tenor/bass transition among an otherwise very evensounding scale. The Walter seemed like a particularly good instrument for chamber music, vocal accompaniment, or solo use in a living room of small or moderate size.
The Schimmel C182 and Vogel V177 grands are nearly the same size (6′ and 5′ 11″, respectively), both belong to the Schimmel family of brands, and they share similar-quality parts. The price of the Vogel is lower, likely the result of cheaper Polish labor, but are these pianos essentially the same? The C182, part of Schimmel’s Classic series, was an impressive and dynamic performer with the tone quality many associate with the Schimmel brand: clear and clean, with a unique sense of brightness. The tone of this piano was particularly smooth and uniform from top to bottom. The action was precise, responsive, and made my technique sound more refined than I probably deserve. While auditioning this instrument, another pianist thought the touch a bit shallow, while I likened its feel (though not the sound) to that of a Bösendorfer. The clarity of this instrument worked well for many types of music: Baroque counterpoint, highly ornamented early Classical pieces, jazz, even Prokofiev. It probably wouldn’t be my instrument of choice for Brahms. Like the Petrof P-III, the projection and dynamic potential of the Schimmel C182 should make it a good choice for larger living rooms, classrooms, and smaller sanctuaries or halls.
From the first set of scales I played across the Vogel Model V177, it was obvious that this piano was closely related to the Schimmel C182. The tonal characteristics were similar — the distinctive Schimmel brightness was easily revealed, though the Vogel’s sound quality was less tightly focused. The key dip on the V177 seemed deeper than on the C182 and the action was reasonably responsive and even. As with many sub-6′ pianos, the bass/tenor transition was slightly detectable, and the Vogel lacked the absolute low-bass authority of larger instruments. The Vogel’s narrower dynamic range and more diffuse tonal palette would seem to better suit it to medium-size living rooms than to large spaces.
Since individual pianos — even instruments of the same model — can vary, I advise anyone considering buying a Schimmel C182 to also try the Vogel V177, and vice versa. Your perception of their similarities may favor purchasing the less expensive Vogel; then again, their differences could be noticeable enough to justify the higher price of the Schimmel.
Talking about pianos from a performer’s perspective is bound to be problematic. The best one can do is offer a set of subjective impressions in which one has tried to articulate the almost indescribable experience a pianist has when he or she sits down and connects with an instrument. I had a lot of fun playing these instruments and trying to get a feel for what makes each unique. As with all pianos, whether the characteristics of these brands will be perceived as merits or weaknesses will greatly depend on the individual player’s tastes and needs. That said, all three brands of piano I sampled were very good performance-grade instruments, and had been well prepared by their respective dealerships. I would have no reservations about recommending any of them to anyone — whether the beginner pianist who wants a great instrument to grow into, or the seasoned professional who needs a piano that can handle any music thrown at it.
Models 126/P6 and 197/G5
My first trip was to Merriam Music in Oakville, Ontario, where I played two pianos by the Italian maker Schulze Pollmann: a 50″ model 126/ P6 upright and a 6′ 7″ model 197/G5 grand, both finished in polished ebony. The upright had a big sound, with a light and responsive action that permitted easy execution of fast passages and good dynamic control. The tone is best described as bright with somewhat mellow undertones, and very transparent. This quality of tone was very consistent, not only throughout the instrument’s keyboard range, but across a wide dynamic range as well. While many pianos sound quite different when played pianissimo than they do fortissimo, these pianos seemed to maintain their basic tonal character across the board.
The grand model, not unlike its smaller upright brother, had a very clean, transparent, and consistent sound across both the tonal and dynamic ranges of the instrument. The bass had a lot of depth for a 6′ 7″ piano, and the treble range was bright and crystalline, with good sustain. The action was wonderfully light and responsive, which made playing fast legato passages very easy. The sound opened up very quickly, requiring a bit of skill to get the instrument to sing softly. Schulze Pollmann pianos are very versatile instruments that lend themselves well to a wide range of styles, from classical to jazz to popular music. They may appeal to a player who favors a more “pure,” “clean” tone over one enveloped by a wider range of harmonic overtones.
My next stop, Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill, Ontario, is the official Bechstein selection center for Canada. It was there that I played a W. Hoffmann 48″ model T122 upright in polished ebony, part of the
W. Hoffmann “Tradition” series, made at a Bechstein factory in the Czech Republic. Not unlike its far more expensive C. Bechstein and Bechstein Academy cousins, this W. Hoffmann had a very rich but clean sound, with pearl-like trebles and a singing tonal quality. The tone was even and consistent across the range of the keyboard, with an almost unnoticeable break between the bass and tenor regions. When I played loud, sustained chords, the sound bloomed colorfully, first emphasizing the fundamental tones and then evolving into a warm, complex set of harmonic overtones. The action was very responsive and tactile, giving me a high level of control in the execution of a wide range of dynamics and clean, fast legatopassages.
One reservation many pianists have about buying an upright instead of a grand is the sacrifice that must be made in the speed of singlenote repetition. On this particular model, however, the ease at which I could quickly repeat a single note was quite impressive. The W. Hoffmann T122 upright would be a good choice for those who want a piano with very good action and a rich, “Bechstein-like” European sound, but at a price that doesn’t break the bank. This model should provide great value for the money.
Models 185 and 132
My third and last stop was at Remenyi House of Music, on Bloor Street in downtown Toronto. They have a wide selection of pianos ranging from Steinway & Sons and Boston to Sauter, Seiler, and Bohemia. The two models I played were a Bohemia 6′ 1″ model 185 grand and a 52″ model 132 Concerto upright, both in polished ebony.
Both models had dark, brooding voices, lyrical in nature and rich in harmonic overtones. When played loudly, the sound opened up into a powerful roar, but never became strident and distorted. Soft passages, particularly on the grand model, rang with a sweet, almost reed-like quality.
Also standing out was these pianos’ very impressive sustain. With both instruments, I found it very satisfying to play a mezzo forte sixor eight-note chord spanning the lower-middle to high registers, then listen to the sound slowly bloom and fade. When playing a single-note passage ascending from the bass register into the tenor, I could hear the tonal character change at the break a bit more noticeably than with some other instruments at this price point. However, this was hardly noticeable when I played two-handed or chordal passages.
The upright’s action felt very solid without being stiff, and with an almost springy character that easily permitted fast repetition of a single note. The grand’s lighter action was very responsive, and consequently somewhat unforgiving. This action was designed to do precisely what the player asks of it. However, as with a high-performance sports car, there can be a bit of a learning curve to obtaining a sense of full control over this instrument.
These pianos should provide solid, viable alternatives for those looking for an instrument with a sound that differs from that of the more typical American or Japanese instruments. Bohemia pianos easily handle any style of music, but do so with a characteristic sound that is unique and refreshing.
With such a wide array of distinctly different pianos on the world market today, there are many possibilities for every type of taste and budget. As a pianist, I’m always excited to play an instrument I’ve never tried before. Each piano, with its own unique personality, beckons the player to look for that place within that resonates with that particular instrument. When all is said and done, it just might be that the piano also “plays” its player. That’s what makes the connection between pianist and piano such a wondrous thing.
Thanks to the following dealers for their participation in this review:
Ackerman’s Piano Sales, Burnsville, Minnesota (Charles R. Walter)
Cosmo Music, Richmond Hill, Ontario (W. Hoffmann)
Jim Laabs Music, Arden Hills, Minnesota (Petrof, Schimmel, Vogel)
Merriam Music, Oakville, Ontario (Schulze Pollmann)
Petit Music, Rochester, Minnesota (Petrof)
Remenyi House of Music, Toronto, Ontario (Bohemia)
Dr. Owen Lovell is an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He concertizes frequently as a soloist, chamber musician, and advocate of new music. Visit his website for more information at www.owenlovell.com.
Pianist and composer Adrean Farrugia has been a vital member of the North American jazz scene for almost 15 years. He has performed and recorded with such luminaries as Curtis Fuller, Randy Brecker, Bob Brookmeyer, and Matt Dusk, in New York, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, and Toronto. He serves on the music faculties of York University, in Toronto, and Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology, in Hamilton, Ontario. Visit his website at www.myspace.com/adreanfarrugia.