By Pei-Hsin Kao
For a professional pianist, making music is both a joy and a responsibility. Pianists hone their minds, hands, and ears not only through extensive training in educational institutions, but over years of practice on a variety of high-end pianos. They train to control the action and to be fluent in the elements of music: tonal color, dynamic range, and stylistic expression. But however skilled the pianist, he or she is only part of the equation. The performance also requires a high-quality piano — one responsive enough to translate the player’s artistry and skill into sound, and able to project that sound to the audience.
This is why professional pianists are so particular about the instruments they use to pursue their art. Ideally, the pianist carefully chooses the instrument according to his or her style of playing, and in turn the instrument influences the pianist. While it’s not impossible to practice on a lower-quality piano, doing so compromises the quality of the tone and the projection of the sound, and can interfere with the practice of advanced techniques.
The needs of professional pianists are what drive the makers of fine pianos to innovate and to create instruments with unique voices, always striving for the perfect blend of new techniques and classic craftsmanship.
A Trio of Ant. Petrof Pianos: Models 275, 225, and 136
Petrof, based in Hradec Králové, Czech Republic, has been manufacturing pianos for more than 150 years. In 2014, Petrof released the first model of its new Ant. Petrof line, named in tribute to the company’s founder, Antonín Petrof: a 9′ concert grand, model 275. Two more models followed in 2016 and 2017: a semi-concert grand, model 225 (7′ 4″); and an upright, model 136 (53.5″). According to Petrof, these pianos are the results of years of development and testing, and represent the top of their line, combining contemporary technological innovation with traditional craftsmanship. Since their European débuts, the model 275, in particular, has earned a reputation for exceptional sound quality and control capability.
The Ant. Petrof line was introduced to the U.S. market at the 2019 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show in Anaheim, California, and samples of the three new models were shipped from there directly to Northwest Pianos, a Petrof dealership in Bellevue, Washington. The first time I visited the store to see them, the pianos were still packed in their wheeled metal road cases.
Before beginning this project, the only Ant. Petrof piano I had seen was in a painting, Lady at Piano (1926), by the Japanese painter Nakamura Daizaburō, which depicts a lady in Japanese traditional dress serenely playing music at an enormous grand piano. The woman’s dress and composure suggest that she is well educated and of high social status, and the atmosphere of the painting is luxurious and elegant. Although no markings on the piano indicate its model or year, the name “Ant. Petrof” is clearly painted on the fallboard, above the keys. Years ago, when I first saw this painting, I had no knowledge what that name might mean, other than the sense of opulence conveyed by the artist.
Ant. Petrof Grands
The Ant. Petrof grands are finished in clean-lined, aesthetically simple polished ebony, and come with an adjustable bench that is ergonomically tilted slightly toward the piano. The music rack on the Ant. Petrof grand has two window cutouts at each end, perhaps to better allow sound to be heard by the player. The grand lid comes with three polished-brass receptacles for two lid props at three different positions — two for the short prop, one for the long prop. A small brass plate on the topside of the outer rim can be set to keep the lid open as little as one inch.
The newly designed and patented treble and bass bridges of the Ant. Petrof grands may draw some technical interest, as both contain a significant innovation unique to these models: an expanded foundation of soundboard spruce, glued between the bridge and soundboard, for more efficient transmission of sound. The grands also have front and rear duplex scales, which, I’m told, help create the complex tonal colors heard from these pianos. The duplex scales are tunable, allowing the tonal-color effect to be optimized by the factory or technician.
Comparison of Model Lines: Petrof vs. Ant. Petrof
To develop a clear sense of the sound and feel of the Ant. Petrof pianos, I wanted to compare them with the nearest equivalent instruments from the regular Petrof line, playing them in the same space and under the same circumstances. Doing so would answer my questions: What are the similarities and differences between the Ant. Petrof and Petrof lines? What kind of experience will a professional pianist have playing on instruments from each line? (For more about the regular Petrof line of grands, see the review in the Spring 2015 issue of Piano Buyer.)
Not all of my choices for comparison were available. Northwest Pianos didn’t have in stock a Petrof Mistral grand (9′ 2″) or an upright P135 (53″), and the Petrof Monsoon (7′ 9″) was serving in the store’s concert hall and could not be moved. Therefore, I compared these instruments: the Ant. Petrof 225 (7′ 4″) with the Petrof Pasat (6′ 10″), and the Ant. Petrof 136 (53.5″) with the Petrof 131 (51.5″). The Ant. Petrof 275 (9′) would be evaluated alone.
While the pianos were being meticulously prepared by Northwest’s piano technician, I consulted with him and the store managers about how best to arrange the instruments for evaluation. We decided to place all the pianos in Northwest’s Performance Gallery, a showcase space designed for the exhibition and demonstration of luxury and performance instruments. The Ant. Petrof 136 upright was placed side by side with the Petrof 131 upright, and the Ant. Petrof 225 next to the Petrof Pasat. By this point, all of us were anxious to hear how these much-talked-about Ant. Petrof models would perform. Even the piano technician was motivated as much by curiosity as by professional obligation.
The Grands: Ant. Petrof 225 and 275 vs. Petrof Pasat
I began with the Ant. Petrof 225 because the Petrof Pasat standing next to it allowed for a clear and immediate comparison. I first played some passages simply to test the responsiveness of its action, and it was immediately apparent that this piano’s most distinguishing feature would be its voice. Fine, bright, and clear, its sound is unique in my experience. In the parlance of piano technicians, the term for what I heard iscomplexity — but that word does not adequately describe my first impressions.Language can be insufficient to explain the subtlety of a piano’s voice and the nuance in the music’s expression, and it certainly failed in the case of the Ant. Petrof 225. In quiet moments, when I played alone, this instrument created an illusion of being played in a much larger performance space, as though the walls and floor of a concert hall had formed around it. Its transparent tone added a three-dimensional quality to the music I played.
I moved over to the Petrof Pasat, an excellent piano built with solid and high-quality construction. I began by playing Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op.55 No.2. The Pasat’s response was warm and tender, able to convey the most subtle nuances and express the emotion in the Nocturne genre. Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op.27 No.2, is an intricate piece perfect for testing an action’s responsiveness, and it demonstrated the Pasat’s exceptional ability to balance the delicacy of the right hand’s melody with the left hand’s quiet and peaceful accompaniment. Next I played Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in B-flat Major, Op.142, No.3, a piece with a lively melody and gentle expression. The Pasat had a singing quality truly suitable for the Schubert and, I would imagine, for chamber music as well.
The voice of the Pasat was thick, warm, and powerful, resembling in some respects that of my own American-handcrafted Baldwin Artist Series piano at home, but with a lighter, more tender quality. In comparison with the sharp clarity of the Ant. Petrof 225, however, the Pasat’s sound was a bit mellow. In addition to the unique character and complexity of its voice, the 225 had a greater dynamic range than the Pasat. When I moved back to the 225 and played the same Chopin Nocturnes, the sound was louder, the dynamic range broader, and the piano better conveyed my expression. When I played the Schubert, the bright, brilliant quality of the 225’s sound urged me to adjust my touch and finger control, and even to use the una corda pedal during the Impromptu’s lyrical and melancholy passages, to temper this instrument’s more dazzling sound.
To my hearing, the 225 is built for and would come into its own in larger venues than would the Pasat. There, the 225’s volume and broad expressive range would work to its advantage. In the same way that a person needs to pitch his or her voice differently when speaking to one person, ten people, a hundred, or a thousand, an excellent instrument can be made to speak differently to audiences of different sizes. With many pianos, physical strength and effort are needed to push out a sound that will reach the end of a large concert hall. That the Ant. Petrof 225 would probably make such projection easier is a quality that would be especially appreciated by a woman of petite stature such as myself. By contrast, a pianist performing on a 225 in a smaller space might need to use a bit more care and control. The Petrof Pasat, on the other hand, would no doubt be ideal for a professional in a home or studio setting, or in more intimate performance spaces.
I then moved on to the Ant. Petrof 275 concert grand. I first played Franz Liszt’s La Campanella (The Little Bell), then Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prélude in G Minor, Op.23 No.5; Chopin’s entire Études Op.25; passages from Alexander Scriabin’s Fantasy in B Minor, Op.28; and Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Minor, K.141.
I very much enjoyed the larger instrument’s sound and tactile feedback. It should be noted here that, due to damage in shipping, the 275’s lid needed to be repaired and was not on the piano when I played it. I know that the lid can have an effect on a grand piano’s sound, though probably more for the audience than for the pianist. Nevertheless, like the 225, the 275’s sound had a three-dimensional quality that evoked the acoustics of a concert hall. Its timbre had a large spectrum of tonal colors, from brilliant and thin in the top register through mellow and medium in the middle, and finally to wide and full in the bass. The piano’s touch response was even and steady, and the transitions of tonal color and volume throughout its dynamic range were smooth. It was easy to demonstrate the shining quality of the delicate “bell” tones at the beginning of La Campanella. The 275 also shone in the grandiose closing section, when both hands are running, jumping octaves and chords across the entire keyboard. The sonority of the bass was huge, yet well balanced with the octave passage in the treble, both registers sounding clear and independent. [Note: The reviewer returned to play the piano after the lid had been repaired and reinstalled, and found no significant difference in the sound.—Ed.]
For all its special attributes, the Ant. Petrof 225 was only a close second to the 275, the concert grand’s longer strings and larger soundboard advancing it to a new sonic level. In particular, the 275’s bass strings delivered a deep, punchy tone that can’t be imitated on a smaller instrument. The tonal color of the 275’s bass varied greatly with dynamic level. As the marching motif in the Rachmaninoff Prélude went from ppp to ff, the bass shifted from mellow to resounding, the latter lending itself to this work’s steely, hard-hearted, military elements. The Scriabin Fantasy, one of my favorites, evokes the mysteriousness of the cosmos. Its opening illustrates the birth of the universe, its scope gradually broadening to indicate infinity. With some pianos, it’s a struggle to create the color and atmosphere I’m after, but there was no such difficulty with the 275. These two pieces demonstrated the ability of the 275’s bass to go from providing a gentle and firm foundation to full roaring power, with controllable gradations in between.
Both the Chopin Études and the Scarlatti Sonata demonstrated the Ant. Petrof 275’s capacities for producing these composers’ resplendent melodies and responding to difficult technique. I particularly liked the Études Nos. 1 and 12. In No.1, nicknamed “Aeolian Harp” or “Harp Study,” the piano did an excellent job of handling the poetic character in the top vocal melody, with its arpeggiated accompaniment. The responsive action reacted even to subtle shifts in fingering and weight, easily distinguishing the two layers of tonal lines. The arpeggiated chord progressions projected well in the stormy scenes of No.12 (“Ocean”). In the Scarlatti, I was impressed by the precision of repetition, the clean sharpness of possible articulations, and, most of all, enjoyed emphasizing specific notes in the bass chords as a way of exploring different interpretations of the piece.
It was a treat to play the Ant. Petrof 275 — the experience was not unlike test-driving a sports car or speedboat. There was a sense of controlled power at my disposal, a capacity for rapid acceleration and deft maneuvering. The smoothness of the action, along with the delicate precision it made possible with changes in dynamics, resulted in an incredibly responsive instrument. Its voice had a gentle character, but one that in no way hobbled its ability to play dynamically, allowing me to layer the music for mood and intensity. At my direction, it could shift in an instant from the gentle to the wild and unbridled.
With its quick damper pedal, responsive action, and exceptional sound, I sensed no limits to what could be accomplished musically on an Ant. Petrof 275 — it compared favorably with the finest 9′ pianos being made today. However, this is still a very young model — the instrument I played was the first sample to arrive in America, and the model has yet to be performed on in concert halls here. Time will tell, but I suspect that artistic feedback will confirm my impressions and validate Petrof’s success in making a world-class concert instrument.
The Uprights: Ant. Petrof 136 vs. Petrof 131
Finally, I come to the upright pianos: the Petrof 131 and Ant. Petrof 136. Professional uprights such as these are well-suited to specific circumstances — limited space or budget — where a grand piano of adequate size simply isn’t feasible: small living spaces, school practice rooms, many church sanctuaries, etc.
I began with the Petrof 131, playing the Prélude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 871, from Book II of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the Chopin Études and the Schubert Impromptu played earlier. My impression was that this piano would be very good for technical practice, as it had the right amount of key resistance to train the muscles of the fingers. By adjusting pressure and articulation, I could hear the independent lines in the Bach, but it was no surprise that the 131 lacked the musical possibilities of the grand pianos reviewed above — most uprights can’t respond to subtle changes in finger pressure as precisely as can grand pianos. However, I found the 131’s sound dense and straightforward, and its staccato extremely clear. Also featuring a middle, practice pedal to reduce volume when needed, the Petrof 131 should be a great piano for students and intermediate to advanced amateurs.
Next, for comparison, I played the same pieces on the Ant. Petrof 136. It had a mellow voice with a round, full tone and, overall, produced significantly more volume than the Petrof 131. By varying my fingering, I was able to successfully combine the rapid staccato and the lingering melodies of the Bach Prélude and Fugue. With gradual crescendos and diminuendos, it was easy to add expression and feeling to the music. The Chopin and Schubert genuinely sounded as if I were playing them on a grand piano. In particular, with the Chopin Étude No.6 (“Thirds”), the action felt quite easy to control — unusual, in my experience, for an upright, and a noteworthy achievement, given the quick repeated notes and notoriously difficult technical demands of the Étude. Some of this is undoubtedly an effect of the 136’s longer keys, which, I’m told, make possible a touch more like that of a grand piano.
I was impressed with the sensitivity of the Ant. Petrof 136’s action and the dynamic range of its sound, both of which contributed to my ability to express myself musically. Although, for a variety of technical reasons, no upright can ever successfully compete musically with the finest grands, the 136 probably came closer to doing so than any other upright I’ve played. Its sound-producing capacity is very great, however; without constant use of its very effective practice (middle) and half-blow, or soft, (left) pedals, it could overwhelm a small space. My conclusion, therefore, is that the Ant. Petrof 136 was designed as a professional upright piano for larger spaces, such as classrooms, church sanctuaries, or rehearsal studios, when for some reason the use of a grand is not possible.