Two Schimmel Reviews: Wilhelm Schimmel W180 Grand and Schimmel C121 Upright

Joseph Fleetwood (Spring 2020)

Schimmel’s model line distributed in North America comprises four categories: Konzert (K) and Classic (C), both made entirely in Germany; Wilhelm Schimmel (W), assembled in Poland; and Fridolin Schimmel (F), made in China by Pearl River, Schimmel’s new owner.

Schimmel W180 Grand

Wilhelm Schimmel W180 Grand

The Wilhelm Schimmel line, named for the company’s founder, is assembled in a factory in Kalisz, Poland, using rims, soundboards, and strings from Germany; actions designed by Schimmel and custom made by Pearl River, with Renner hammers; and cabinet parts from Poland. Schimmel says that while the skill level of its Polish employees is high, the lower wages and other lower costs available in Poland result in a piano approximately 30% less costly than comparable German Schimmel models. Though designed by Schimmel, the Wilhelm Schimmels don’t have all the refinements and advanced features of the German Schimmel lines.

Recently, I auditioned the Wilhelm Schimmel model W180 ($34,130 SMP in polished ebony), a grand approximately 6′ long, at the trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). There I was also able to compare it to two similarly sized models from Schimmel’s Konzert series, developed to compete with the world’s finest instruments and costing twice as much as the Wilhelm Schimmels: the K175 (5′ 9″, $70,496 SMP) and the K195 (6′ 4″, $76,646 SMP). Although the differences in cost make this comparison not entirely fair, those who wonder whether the less-expensive Wilhelm Schimmel models might suffice for their needs should find it valuable. (A better point of comparison would have been the Classic series, which comes between the Wilhelm Schimmel and Konzert series in cost and quality, but those models were not available to me.)

The Wilhelm Schimmel W180 had a typically high-quality Schimmel tone, rich and clear. The sustain was excellent, as was the balance of treble and bass. Powerful enough to be used in small concert venues, it would also be an excellent choice for home use and in music studios.

The shocking transition between pianissimo and fortissimo in the opening of Chopin’s Scherzo No.2 in B-flat Minor was easily handled by the W180, and at no point did I feel that it reached its maximum volume prematurely—a problem with many midpriced pianos. It was easy to delineate treble from accompaniment lines, soprano lines singing easily over left-hand arpeggios.

In Haydn’s energetic Sonata No.60 in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, the W180 produced a beautiful staccato tone that retained full body, without the “clipped” sound that some cheaper pianos can produce. The instrument was resonant throughout its dynamic range, whether I played legato or staccato.

The tone of the W180 could be intimate or powerful, and, unusual for a piano in this price range, the tonal color changed with changes in volume throughout the dynamic range. With many other instruments in this price range, the tone seems to weaken at the extremes of pianissimo and fortissimo.

When playing J.S. Bach’s Partita No.1 in B-flat Major, in which each line must be very carefully controlled to properly express counterpoint, the W180’s tone, though clear, didn’t have quite the clarity of the more expensive Konzert models. Perhaps some voicing would improve this; I would be interested in trying additional W180s to discover if this trait is indeed characteristic of this model.

The W180’s pedal lyre, while not flimsy, didn’t feel quite as stable underfoot as the lyres of the Konzert models. However, the pedaling was easy to control, especially the half-pedal effects used by more advanced players.

The W180’s action was comfortable to play, with good repetition, but at times I felt slightly disconnected from the instrument—it didn’t offer the degree of control required by a virtuoso pianist, and which the Konzert models did provide. I don’t know whether this could be improved through action regulation, but I suspect that the W180’s action is as good as one will find at this price.

The Wilhelm Schimmel W180, designed for home use, would meet the requirements of musicians, families, and students on a limited budget who need a high-quality instrument. Its nearest competitors would probably be the Yamaha C2X or the Kawai GX-2, but the W180 is somewhat less expensive than either of those models, representing quite good value in the U.S. market.

If you’re choosing a piano for a serious piano student or professional-level solo player, I would recommend upgrading to Schimmel’s Konzert series or, if cost is a factor, to the Classic series. The Wilhelm Schimmel models, though solidly built and sounding beautiful in their own right, aren’t quite suitable for the soloist in training, whose highly specialized course of study requires access to a highly specialized instrument. For example, the W180’s repetition in the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.17 in D Minor, Op.31 No.2, “Tempest,” and in the Finale of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3, while reasonable, was not up to the standard required by the professional soloist.

That said, the Wilhelm Schimmel W180 is a fine piano for the home or for nonprofessional use. Many musicians will love the piano’s tone, which bears a strong resemblance to that of models in Schimmel’s flagship Konzert series. And the example I played looked supremely elegant with its high-gloss mahogany finish with oval intarsia ornaments, one of several special-order finish options the factory is capable of producing.

Schimmel C121 Upright

Schimmel C121

The new Schimmel C121 (48″, $23,164 SMP), which replaces the model C120, aims to bridge the gap between the home and institutional markets, much as the Yamaha U1 does. Its medium-large size means that it can provide a rewarding musical experience for the professional musician or teacher while still looking good in any room of the house.

In fact, the first thing that struck me about the C121 was just how beautiful it looks. The polished ebony case of the example I saw was very elegant, and the Schimmel name shone beautifully on the fallboard. The piano seemed solidly built, too, without looking industrial. Schimmel says that the C121 has been designed to give the optimal string length for an instrument of this size. According to Schimmel, from the 1950s to the 1980s the company specialized in making a very small piano that still made musical sense, and they’ve scaled up some of the same design concepts, as needed, to suit their larger instruments.

Right away, the C121’s tone struck me as being exceptionally well balanced throughout the range—rich and singing, particularly in the “killer” fifth octave, so called because of the technical difficulty in most piano designs of getting the notes of that octave to sing. In fact, the tone had long sustain and excellent clarity, and was very subtle and complex—more refined than that of its nearest competitors from Japan, which I also find very inspiring to play on. The C121 is one of Schimmel’s Classic series models, which are one tier down from their top series, Konzert—but at no point did I find the tone lacking.

The action was comfortable to play, with a medium touch, neither light nor heavy. It was easy to produce a full range of dynamics, the piano never distorting or prematurely reaching its maximum volume when I played fortissimo, and in the pianissimo dynamic the tone had a beautiful crystalline quality.

Two examples of this model were on display at the trade show, and on both the action repetition was acceptable but not excellent, as one would expect in a vertical—a virtuoso pianist would likely prefer a grand, or at least upgrading to a Konzert model. In addition, I’m sure the action regulation could be improved by a good technician; at trade shows, pianos are sometimes not in their best shape by the time they reach the fingers of a reviewer. The touch of this C121 had extremely low inertia (a measure of mass in the keys and action), which means that it would be possible to play it for a long time without experiencing fatigue. However, when I played pianissimo, sometimes the action didn’t strike reliably every time.

The pedaling was very comfortable, and the pedal action allowed for some really subtle half-pedal effects, unusual on an upright. The touch with the half-blow pedal (on an upright, the soft pedal) was still very comfortable. On some uprights, the touch can feel really loose with the half-blow pedal engaged; that Schimmel has overcome this problem is encouraging. The C121’s center pedal is a moderator, or practice pedal (i.e., a felt strip is inserted between the hammers and strings); a factory-installed silent system is also available.

The benchmark to which all 48″ vertical pianos are inevitably compared is the Yamaha U1, an excellent instrument in its own right. The Schimmel C121 presents a tonally more interesting alternative, albeit at a significantly higher price. It’s a fine piano with a wide range of applications in private home use, study, and piano teaching. Solidly built, it would easily withstand the rigors of institutional use. The C121 would be an excellent choice for churches, theaters, and venues that require a good instrument but don’t need a grand piano for solo recitals. And although the solo repertoire by no means sounded wanting on this piano, accompanists and vocal coaches will appreciate its warm, intimate tone, a sound that lends itself particularly well to lieder.

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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