This summer I visited the Samick distribution center in Gallatin, Tennessee, where the company also maintains a showroom featuring the latest models available from Seiler, a German piano manufacturer owned by Samick since 2008.
For this review, I spent time with three models of Seiler grand piano from their 186 line: the SE186, made entirely at the Seiler factory in Germany with all-German parts, as it has been for many years; the ES186, whose cabinet and strung back (sound body) are made in Indonesia to the same specifications as the German-made model, then shipped to Germany, where the Renner action and German hammers are installed and the instrument is finished musically; and the ED186, also made to the same specs as the German model, but assembled and finished musically entirely in Indonesia, with an action comprising a mixture of Renner and Samick parts. All three models are about the same size: 6′ 1″ or 6′ 2″. To add an element of mystery — and objectivity — to the review process, I was not told the specific model or origin of any of the pianos until I had completed the audition and made my notes.
I should point out that my experience with pianos has been mostly of popular American and Asian brands such as Steinway, Baldwin, and Yamaha, and occasionally of Bösendorfers, Bechsteins, and other European makes. As with most people in my profession (performing and teaching piano), my points of reference when discussing characteristics of a piano new to me, especially one of performance quality, are the tone and touch of the typical New York Steinway.
On all three pianos, I played and practiced snippets from a wide variety of repertoire, chosen to help me clearly see the similarities and differences among the instruments. Various fast and slow movements of Mozart sonatas and concertos helped me understand the pianos’ potential in light, ornamented music. Rameau’s Rappel des Oiseaux, with its many mordents, gave me further insight into the touch mechanism of each. I also tried out a Chopin Étude, Op.25 No.1, “Aeolian Harp,” for comparisons of touch and tone control. To gain an idea of the pianos’ potential in virtuoso textures and orchestral colorings, I used Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, and explored the instruments’ capacity for tonal coloration and textural clarity at both dynamic extremes with Chopin Étude in E-flat Minor, Op.10 No.6, and The Great Gate of Kiev, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Seilers feel good to play, and generally respond easily to a performer’s demands. All pianos had a ringing brightness in the upper registers, and rich enough bass sounds to warrant their use as practice instruments for artists. In general, the tone tended toward the bright side of the spectrum. Finally, all three pianos were in quite good shape: the actions made no discernible noise, pedals worked smoothly and without noise, and the cabinetry was quite attractive.
The ED186, priced lowest (see sidebar for price information) and made entirely in Indonesia, had an attractive, light tone and a light touch to match. The easy touch didn’t make the piano hard to control, however, and touch dynamics felt very comfortable in rapid passagework. Although it had the slowest action of the three instruments, this did not hamper trills or ornaments. The tone was a bit bright for my taste, and even seemed a little thin at times, especially in the high treble. Oddly, there was a sense of fuzziness in the tone that inhibited clarity. When I experimented with forte sounds, a practical ceiling was quickly reached beyond which treble sounds became downright tinny. The piano had been voiced evenly and was quite consistent throughout the registers. However, as rewarding as it was to play Mozart on this piano, it felt decidedly lacking in the larger sounds of Liszt and Mussorgsky.
The ES186, priced between the ED and the SE, was in many ways my favorite of the three. There were clear similarities between this piano and the ED186, but the ES avoided some of the shortcomings of the less expensive model. In particular, the tone quality, though still thin in the treble, was less bright and allowed more color variety. The instrument I played had not been voiced well — its middle register was almost muddy — but still showcased a more substantial bass presence and better treble sustain than the ED. Its touch was very similar to the ED’s, but even more enjoyable to play. Repetition was adequate to most tasks, and the action felt faster. This piano was better than the others at blending sounds — pieces such as Chopin’s Op.10 No.6 and the chorale-style passages in the Mussorgsky really shone — and it felt easier to control. My favorite aspect of this piano was the ability to easily control the sustain pedal; mixing sounds with half-pedal effects and overlaps felt very natural, and was readily accomplished without my having to work too hard.
MODELS & PRICES
See Model & Pricing Guide for details.
The SE186, handmade in Germany from German-made parts, represents the top end of the 186 line. Relatively expensive, the SE186 showcased sounds the other pianos simply didn’t have, with a richness and depth I noticed from the moment I began to play it. The warmer tone was also accompanied by a boldness that allowed me to take the tempestuous Mephisto Waltz as far as I wanted to go. Likewise, this piano displayed greater melodic sustain than the other two. Finally, the SE186 clearly showed the most variety of color; pieces like The Great Gate of Kiev and Mephisto Waltz were brought to life by its wider palette. Despite these advantages, the tone of this instrument was still too bright to really satisfy me, and the soft pedal did little to modify this characteristic. The tone was also somewhat uneven throughout the registers, the middle bass having some quite nasal sounds, though the low bass displayed the desired richness.
The SE186’s key descent was the smoothest of the three instruments, and its action was able to repeat the fastest. The resulting crisp feel was an asset when running through the passagework of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto, K.537. However, the SE’s touch, though fast when sufficient effort was applied, was quite stiff and much less friendly than that of the ES or ED. Rapid and soft playing seemed risky enough to encourage me to avoid delicate effects in passagework. The stiffness made Chopin’s “Aeolian Harp” a challenge, and rapid repetition became a bit of a chore. Finally, the sustain pedal would not allow me the luxury of half-pedaling with anything like the ease of the ES. Overall, the SE seemed a potentially superior product, but this particular instrument may have needed some additional prep work to reach its full potential.
Seiler pianos appear to be headed to American showrooms in growing numbers, and there is much in them to praise. In particular, the touch control in the ED and ES models will be appreciated by serious students and teachers, and the pianos are adequate for most repertoire taught and performed today. The two models’ common downside is a lack of power and richness in the sound, but a player must perform at a professional level to exceed these pianos’ capacities. Despite the unevenness of the particular SE piano I played, this high-end instrument offers many colorful sonorities for the artist looking for an instrument lying just off the well-worn path of Steinways, Yamahas, and other familiar brands.
Dr. Kristian Klefstad is Associate Professor of Music at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tennessee. He teaches applied piano, coordinates the Piano Pedagogy program, and directs the Piano Ensemble. Dr. Klefstad is an active performer throughout the country, and serves as the President of the Nashville Area Music Teachers Association.