By Joseph Fleetwood
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. 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@example.com.