Review: Seiler SE-278 Concert Grand

Joseph Fleetwood (Spring 2020)

In business since 1849, high-end German manufacturer Seiler is relatively new to the concert-grand market, having had a 9′ grand in production for only about 15 years. And while Seiler has been wholly owned by Samick, a Korean company, since 2008, the production of Seiler concert grands takes place in Kitzingen, Germany, where the Seiler factory has been located since 1962. At present, the production at Seiler is overseen by Julius Feurich, who was the last in his family to produce the famous Feurich piano in Germany before that name began appearing on instruments made in Asia.

Seiler SE-278

I tested a model SE-278 concert grand (9′ 2″, $209,000 SMP) at the trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). It appeared to be brand new, and had most likely never been played in concert.

Right away, the instrument had an exceptional sound: full, rounded, with excellent sustain and great clarity. The piano has definitely been designed in the German romantic tradition, with a sound entirely different in character from those of Steinways made in New York or Hamburg. Julius Feurich told me that Seiler’s philosophy is to make an instrument that produces much more of the fundamental tone, with fewer overtones. Duplex scaling, in which the unstruck front and rear string lengths are left unmuted, adds an amazing glow to the treble. The result is an incredibly pure, sweet sound, with a sort of vintage character to the tone that reminds me of some early-20th-century Bechsteins and Blüthners. This kind of sound lends itself to everything from Bach to Brahms—Schubert sounds particularly beautiful. It was very easy, for example, in Schubert’s Impromptu No.3 in G-flat Major, to produce a sustained legato line in the melody while keeping the inner eighth-note figurations murmuring quietly underneath—a difficult task on anything but the best pianos.

In the triumphant, exclamatory opening of Beethoven’s Concerto No.5, “Emperor,” the SE-278 sounded very clear and bright but in no way harsh, as lesser pianos tend to. I also played excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s incredibly technically demanding Piano Concerto No.3, and again the Seiler produced a very beautiful sound all the way up to fortissimo in the thick, complex chords that work abounds in.

As beautiful as the sound was, however, I didn’t feel it had the power for the largest concert halls. This piano’s strength lay in its intimacy—in no way a criticism. While American halls and audiences are used to the growling New York Steinway sound, European instruments are built more for subtlety, which this piano delivered in spades; and, historically, for smaller concert spaces. American pianists might be a bit disconcerted by this tonal aesthetic, but as a European, I can attest to the fact that European pianists take a little time to warm up to the American sound.

The SE-278 was very comfortable with the Chopin Ballades, the treble and tenor melodic lines of Ballade No.3 in A-flat Major singing beautifully, and the more robust textures easily delineated so that there was no confusion between lines. In Bach, the piano was exceptional, with something of the old-world German sound in classical repertoire such as Mozart and Haydn.

The pedals were easy to control, and I had no problem with performing advanced half-pedaling techniques. The damper lift was also very quiet, which would make the piano well suited to recording applications.

The Renner action was comfortable to play, and provided good control over the instrument throughout its dynamic range. For my taste, however, the action was not as refined as those in some of the other great European makes I’ve played, such as Steingraeber, Blüthner, and C. Bechstein, and at times I felt slightly disconnected from the piano. Given that these other makes also use Renner actions, it’s possible that this particular instrument was just a little too new, not having gone through the progressive refinements of action regulation that concert grands typically receive before being ready for the stage.

This is a top-tier instrument that would be at home in venues of small to medium size, especially at institutions that desire an alternative to the usual Steinway or Yamaha concert grands. Its extraordinary tonal palette would be exquisite in chamber music and song recitals, and would make it an excellent piano for recording.

Joseph Fleetwood is a concert pianist, and currently the Narramore Fellow at the University of Alabama, where he is studying for his Doctor of Musical Arts degree. Originally from Scotland, Joseph was previously a piano teacher at the University of Aberdeen and the University of St Andrews. His CD of J.S. Bach’s complete partitas is now available on the Sheva Collection label. His website is www.josephfleetwood.com; he can be contacted at [email protected].

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One thought on “Review: Seiler SE-278 Concert Grand

  1. My name is Kieran Wells. I am fairly involved with the performance community at large. I am a dealer. I facilitate, make value judgements, and often handle myself in a political way. I nod my head in disingenuous validation of those who are objectively wrong in an effort to maintain decorum, and preserve relationships.

    I find your comment, “for my taste, however, the action was not as refined as those in some of the other great European makes”, interesting to me at a personal as well as professional level. The director of Jazz Programming at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis requested a Seiler model 242 (the 8′, not the 9′) because the 9′ Steinway pianos that they were provided ‘just weren’t cutting it’ at the time–they did not have enough power, projection, nuance or color. I have had many very high level performers disagree with your assessment. Most Seiler customers come from auditioning a brand who claims to hold 98% of the performance market. Most have vast experience. All of them are discerning.

    As innocuous as the “for my taste, however, the action was not as refined” comment sounds, it trashes the piano. Often when spending serious money on a piano like this, people base their decisions on a feeling, and the feeling that a comment such as ‘not as refined’ elicits is not a good one. It casts fear, uncertainty and doubt upon an instrument of rare refinement. I would stay far away from this piano based on your review. Being the person I am, I find myself compelled to speak up.

    I have heard many intelligent departmental chairs make comments similar to yours, then years later have observed a purchase by their institution of the very same instrument they have criticized. If I may offer an observation, I would assert that many times, it is our kinesthetic memory that holds us back or defines our impressions. I hire professional pianists, most of whom are used to the same stuff that the halls and clubs commonly provide. The revelatory experience of these players exploring pianos like the Seiler SE over time has been interesting and exciting to watch. I have seen high level pianists fumble over a Steinway that was not deregulated to their preference, or dislike a Bösendorfer (despite being objectively louder) for not being powerful enough. Few will have the privilege to play an instrument as nuanced or refined as the Seiler SE. Instruments like this allow people to explore repertoire in a way that perhaps they never knew possible.

    Based on your review, if I were purchasing a piano for an institution, I would not even go out of my way to try a Seiler (a rare, special and high level piano that one must necessarily go out of one’s way to audition). Institutional purchases are tough for the person (or people) pulling the trigger. Reputation, ego, and expertise, are all on the line. Usually the money doesn’t belong to them. Often the donor (who usually is not in the know) wants input. All it takes is a whisper to rattle the uncertain–we all know this. The deal is dead before it even started.

    Slight changes in room position can make a world of difference. I pulled a Steinway Model B out of a famous local mansion a couple of weeks ago. It was very loud and overly bright in the space that it occupied; once at my shop, I felt like it needed to be voiced up.

    We work with whatever situation we find ourselves in and endevor to do our best with the cards we are dealt. The review might want to explain to the reader that the NAMM show is possibly the worst environment to try an instrument in, so much so that I no longer attend. The carpeted room at a convention center is sub-optimal and belies the nature of an instrument, similar to trying to get a color sample from your cell phone camera. The taste of the technician may differ from yours as well. You are entitled to your taste and opinion, which I respect. The review has problems though, not with the writing, but in and of itself. My assertion is that it is perhaps a false assumption to think that one could write a useful critical review, the aim of which would be to guide big decision makers, based on your personal experience at the NAMM show.

    Larry Fine will tell us from experience that there is always someone who is going to disagree with you. People will belly-ache that they were not given a fair shake or that the review was written by the wrong person. Someone is always going to have something to say, so you have to just do your work and get on with it. Mr. Fine’s publications are a service to the industry, and despite the fact that there are things in the publication with which I disagree, I link to it from my site because it is the best piece of advocacy for those who wish to make an informed decision without making a career out of the process. Go to the showroom in Gallatin. They will roll out the red carpet. You still may prefer a different piano.

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