By James Wrubel
As a classically trained jazz pianist who has performed in the U. S. and abroad, I’ve played a wide variety of pianos. But until January 2015, when I attended the NAMM Show — the world’s largest music trade show, sponsored by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) — I had never played a piano made by Grotrian, the prestigious German firm established in 1835 and now managed by the sixth generation of the Grotrian family. After a day of sampling pianos ranging from Hailun to Fazioli to the custom-made Ravenscroft, I saw two of Grotrian’s larger grand models in a busy corridor. I played each for a few minutes, and although my playing was drowned out by the din of the show, I nevertheless walked away with a favorable first impression.
I next encountered Grotrian for the purposes of this review: a visit to piano dealer R. Kassman, in Berkeley, California (www.rkassman.com), which carries the largest inventory of Grotrian pianos in the U.S. Owner Russell Kassman provided me with one vertical and two grand models with which to spend a few hours over the course of an afternoon.
At 6′ 3″/192 cm., the Cabinet (a Piano Buyer “Staff Pick”), is the second-smallest grand piano Grotrian makes. On the example I tried, the bird’s-eye maple veneer on the fallboard and the inside of the rim (a special-order version of the standard polished ebony case) made an immediate statement of elegance. Finish details common to all of the pianos I sampled included a removable silver Grotrian stamp on the fallboard just behind the keyblock, and the matte-gray Grotrian logo, also on the fallboard.
The Cabinet grand exemplifies Grotrian’s quality of manufacture: The piano produced a full sound and projected far better than its size would suggest, while exhibiting a fine, transparent clarity across almost all registers — traits that I was to find characteristic of the Grotrian sound. Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op.32 No.12, which requires player and piano to produce a wide range of tone, was well suited to showing off the Cabinet’s ability to clearly articulate everything I played in the middle and upper registers, though the tone in these registers teetered on the edge of over brightness if notes were sharply attacked. Though much smaller than a concert grand, the Cabinet could no doubt fill smaller performance venues due to its substantial projection and very “live” sound. This was not a subdued piano that required effort to reveal its underlying personality; it easily rewarded both player and listener. The same clarity of tone was a big help in Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat Major, D.899/Op.90 No.4, as it amplified the lilting melody and honored some of the more brooding portions.
I then played the love duet, “I Loves You Porgy,” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, using “drop” chord voicings — a Bill Evans innovation in which one note is taken out of a chord voicing and played by the left hand. The Cabinet sang with a wistful, ethereal quality, providing a moving medium for this song’s emotional content, a result possible only with an instrument of great sensitivity. The powerhouse third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op.27 No.2, “Moonlight,” spoke with authority as I arpeggiated rapidly up and down the keyboard. Lowering the lid to the half-stick position reduced the instrument’s projection, as expected, but without an accompanying reduction in the ability of the piano to inspire me. The una corda pedal produced a softer sound and a more muted tonal color.
The Cabinet grand demanded good touch control to bring forth the nuances in timbre the instrument was capable of producing, but this model could also be enjoyed by amateurs. While not as light in touch as, for example, most of today’s Yamaha grands that I’ve experienced, Grotrian’s Cabinet grand played with ease, and its Renner action had good touch response.
The only action components I didn’t particularly care for were the keytops, which are made of Ivoplast, a mineral-based ivory substitute found on Grotrian keyboards, which are made by Kluge. Although the keytop surfaces didn’t lack grip, they felt very plastic-like — and more so on this particular instrument than on the other Grotrians I tried, even though all three used the same keytop material. It took a while to get used to the keytops’ feel and squared edges.
For its ability to project strong bass fundamentals and its overall balanced sound, the Grotrian Cabinet grand is a compelling choice. In these regards, as well as in its refinement and the precise sparkle of its treble, it resembled Grotrian’s Concert Royal 9′ 1″ grand model, which I was also able to play but do not review here. The Cabinet managed to have a sound that was clean and clear without being sterile, and that thus retained its musicality — something that many other grands with a clean sound can’t do.
At 52″/132 cm. tall, the Concertino is Grotrian’s largest vertical piano. The most noticeable physical attribute of the instrument I examined was its unique polished Makassar ebony finish with chrome hardware (a finish and style available by special order). The finish made a fashion statement with its mid-brown color, high gloss, and dark-brown horizontal grain lines, resulting in a nice textural contrast that stood out without appearing flashy.
Like the Cabinet grand, the Concertino vertical projected with the resonance of a much larger instrument. This was best demonstrated during a stride-piano version of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar’s “Tea for Two,” played without the damper pedal to test sustain, tone, and overall color. The sound was on the dry side, with limited sustain from individual notes and chords in all but the top octave, but with strong projection and sonority from the bass, which was especially impressive for a vertical.
To test the piano’s full end-to-end performance, I played extended rubato versions of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” I made liberal use of the damper pedal, along with quick runs, arpeggios, and numerous textures, to reveal the piano’s true personality, and its ability to shine through almost every challenge I threw at it. The Concertino’s timbre was quite bright, and when I played quick, loud attacks, the middle to upper registers could become brassy, though never shrill. However, a bell-like quality appeared only in the top octave, and then a bit suddenly — a transition that could probably be voiced more smoothly by a piano technician, as could a few notes in the area of middle C that were not perfectly consistent in tone from note to note. The bass/tenor break was smooth, and left-hand chords came through clearly, well delineated, and without muddiness, except at the loudest volumes or with large, dense chords. The Concertino struck a nice balance between the overachieving bass projection and the brighter treble registers, which cut through the lower notes without sounding thin. Overall, the instrument’s sound was pleasant, but not what I’d call “warm.”
A few additional characteristics caught my attention. First, while not projecting as well as large grands do, the Concertino did project better than other verticals of its size I’ve played. Second, as is a tendency with verticals in general, noticeable key and action noise were evident throughout, especially when I played repeated notes across the dynamic range at various levels of touch. Last, I noticed that the distance from the tops of the keys to the keyslip was quite short, although the key dip (key travel distance) was normal. This took some getting used to, since I play with a relatively flat hand position due to the frequent need to play chords with widely spaced notes.
Overall, the Grotrian Concertino came across very well and, in part due to its superior projection, made a good case for buying a vertical instead of a small grand.
The Charis, at 6′ 10″/208 cm., is the third largest of Grotrian’s grand pianos, and a direct competitor to the Steinway B in price and size. I expected it to play like an amplified Cabinet grand, but I was in for a surprise. Perhaps due to its more recent (2006) design, the Charis’s tonal qualities differed from those of the other two pianos reviewed. Or perhaps this had to do with the room acoustics: The Charis was placed against a wall, whereas the Cabinet sat in the middle of the store, which has a concrete floor and high ceilings.
Playing a few more ballads rubato — Thad Jones’s “A Child Is Born,” Johnny Mandel and Johnny Mercer’s “Emily,” and Larry Morey and Frank Churchill’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” — showed the Charis to be voiced with a most mellow and warm tone in the low and midrange, though with the same bright high registers as the Cabinet grand and the Concertino vertical. The bass resonance could far out-project that of the Cabinet grand, but only when seriously muscled.
Had I played the Charis blindfolded, I might have identified it as a Yamaha CF6 or a Shigeru Kawai. This is not a criticism of the Grotrian, as it was because of these tonal characteristics that the Charis came across as most elegant and refined, and without some of the slight harshness in the treble that the other brands mentioned could exhibit when played at high volumes. However, I found it significantly harder to project the same volume of sound from the Charis as I could from the Cabinet grand, especially in the bass, and to control my musical expression. It was as if the Charis were forcing me to know in advance exactly what I wanted to say, rather than gently and intuitively guiding me there.
As an improvising musician, I consider a good piano to produce a moderate range of tonal colors, with consistent action and sound across the keyboard. Grotrian achieves a higher standard. All three instruments were pleasing to play and produced a variety of colors, but beyond that, they pushed me to reach for new ideas and to be a more diverse improviser. They allowed me to push the boundaries and experiment with presenting a piece of music in different ways. From an improviser’s perspective, that is the mark of a great piano, and a feeling I have experienced with only a small handful of other high-end brands. The Grotrians could also produce the breadth of timbre, tone, and expression required by classical works, and with a remarkable clarity of tone that I have found only in pianos in Grotrian’s price range. Those looking for a handcrafted piano possessing all of these qualities would be wise to give a Grotrian serious and deliberate consideration.
Grotrian Models Reviewed
Prices for models in polished ebony.
*Suggested Maximum Price: Most sales take place at a modest discount to this price. See Acoustic Piano Model & Pricing Guide for details.
Note that models, prices, and specifications may have changed since this article was first published. See Grotrian Profile for current information.
James Wrubel holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College, and studied at London’s Royal College of Music. A jazz pianist and teacher, he is an online instructor for Hear and Play Music, Inc., where he has taught thousands of pianists around the world to learn to play jazz by ear. He and his wife reside in the San Diego Area. For more information and/or to contact him, visit www.jazzwithjames.com and www.hearandplay.com/jitc/.