By Various Piano Technicians
In order to give prospective buyers of high-end pianos a better sense of the individual personalities of these brands, we will occasionally provide selected dealers, technicians, and pianists the opportunity to describe the musical and other qualities of the highend brands they represent, service, or play. As you'll see over time, although different writers often describe the same brands in very different ways, certain common themes are evident.
Piano Technicians who eventually drift toward the high-end market are usually people who appreciate quality, strive for excellence, and can even be called connoisseurs. Their mission is to provide the pianist with a sublime, inspiring, creative, and enjoyable experience every time he or she plays the instrument. It's a paradox, but their goal is achieved when the pianist forgets about the piano and is able to focus exclusively on the music being played.
In the last issue of Piano Buyer, we focused on the viewpoints of dealers who sell high-end pianos. In the short pieces below, you'll hear from the people who service these instruments — some of the most respected piano technicians in the country. Each technician has extensive hands-on experience with the specific brand(s) he writes about. All of them strive for quality and perfection, and have intimate relationships with the pianos, inside and out. Although you'll recognize common ground in these technicians' opinions, there are also differences, and each speaks only for himself.
Selecting a piano can be compared to selecting a fine bottle of wine, perfume, or cologne. There are many flavors and essences, and there can come a point at which the dominant factor in the selection process is personal preference. The pianos discussed below are all considered among the finest made today. All have been designed with certain qualities, sound, and touch in mind, and each instrument has been made with great care. Our goal in this article is to inform the reader of the special quirks, qualities, limitations, and characteristics of the brands the writers most admire and are most familiar with. We believe the viewpoint of the technician is a unique and valuable one that adds a measure of "inside" information that can help the prospective purchaser. — Editor
Of the many fine high-end pianos made in Europe today, C. Bechstein is one of the finest. Managed and run by highly trained piano technicians, C. Bechstein is exacting in its commitment to using only the finest materials from around the world and to maintaining the highest standards of workmanship. C. Bechstein stands out because the company has developed a remarkable synergy between modern manufacturing techniques and hand craftsmanship. Precise machining saves time, allowing for more handwork construction, and this translates into very high levels of quality and precision. This precision also makes the C. Bechstein a painless piano to work on. On delivery direct from the factory in Germany, the piano needs little if any servicing other than normal tuning: the technician need only "tweak" the instrument with some small adjustments.
Unlike the vintage Bechstein, the modern C. Bechstein has a clear, powerful, transparent tone that develops a rich color palette over the entire dynamic range. The company has worked diligently to transform the instrument from its past as one with a more intimate tonal output into an instrument capable of considerably greater power and projection. As with many European pianos, the touch of a C. Bechstein seems light and very responsive. The instrument requires little effort to produce a great tone, which can throw off players unaccustomed to it. It is also very evenly weighted, with no apparent variation from key to key. The vertical pianos are also fine instruments, and made to the same standards as the grands. — Joe Vitti
Founded in 1853, the venerable Leipzig firm of Blüthner continues today as a family-owned and -operated business. Blüthner pianos are characterized by impeccable workmanship, and a tone that is clear and crystalline from pp to ff. Being somewhat partisan to the Steinway sound, I find the Blüthner tone, particularly in the smaller models, to have less depth and color than I generally prefer. I find it easier to achieve the tonal range I like when voicing the hammers of the larger models, such as the Model 1 concert grand and Model 2 semi-concert grand. In the highest treble section, Blüthner pianos feature a fourth, "aliquot" string per note. This string is not actually struck by the hammer, but sits a little higher than the other three strings and vibrates sympathetically with them. The intent is to give that register — which in other pianos is sometimes thin and weak — additional warmth and sustain; to my ears, it really does work.
Two other technical features that make Blüthner pianos a joy for me to work on are: the angle-cut hammers in the bass and tenor sections, which makes reshaping hammer a breeze; and the graduation of string gauges by half-sizes all the way down the tenor section, resulting in a very smooth tuning scale. — Steve Brady
Some pianos never let you forget that they are percussion instruments. Others, like the Blüthner, are the polar opposite — smooth, refined, rich, and velvety. It's easy to see why Artur Rubinstein wrote so lovingly about them in his autobiography. Ideal for intimate settings and chamber music, their rich, singing quality never overpowers. This beauty comes at a price, however: attempts to boost the power and add a little fire by hardening the hammers can be less than successful. Sustain may be compromised, and the tone can become strident, even weak. There seems to be a ceiling that cannot be breached, though I have found that judicious single-needle voicing from the side of the hammer can lengthen sustain while adding breadth and power in the sixth and seventh octaves. Blüthner's signature "aliquot" stringing system has the subtle but desirable effect of a whispering, ethereal echo that overlays the tone. One cannot but wonder, however, if the additional load on the soundboard from four-string unisons contributes to the piano's lack of power and brilliance, even while enhancing the unique, characteristic sound for which Blüthner is known. For pianists seeking a warm, sophisticated companion in chamber music, or the perfect piano for Chopin or Schumann, the Blüthner is an obvious choice. Those who want a piano that can also set the curtains ablaze may be disappointed. The workmanship is impeccable, the veneers and finish worthy of a museum, and despite the extra strings, they are a dream to tune. — Steve Pearson
The Bösendorfer is a boutique piano: a relatively small number of instruments made by hand, the oldfashioned way, by highly skilled craftsmen. Bösendorfers have a sound quality that is clear, sophisticated, and unique — not as threedimensional as a Steinway, but still complex, and with excellent sustain and a singing tone. It records well, but may require custom voicing to cut through large orchestras or for other specific musical situations. Most pianists find the action pleasing and easy to control. From a technical angle, the action regulation and tuning are stable, the wood is well cured, and the materials are excellent. Exquisite custom cases are available. A bit costly, this is a piano for the connoisseur — to be enjoyed and savored.
My experience with Bösendorfers began when a 9' 6" Imperial concert grand model was purchased by one of the concert halls I used to service. This theater also had both New York and Hamburg Steinway concert grands. It was interesting to hear each piano on the same stage with the same orchestra during the various orchestral seasons. Frankly, most artists preferred the Steinways for their superior ability to project to the back of the hall. But when the Bösendorfer was on stage, it was quite beautiful and strong in its own way. The Bösendorfer rim, made of spruce and an important contributor to the piano's tone, is more flexible than the rims of other brands, so the piano may not be ideal for situations that require frequent dismantling and long-distance moving, such as concert rentals. However, it should be fine for the home or salon, or as a house piano for a concert venue, and maintenance will be reduced if the room and/or piano are humidity-controlled. — Arlan Harris
Bösendorfer pianos, built in the Vienna suburb of Wiener Neustadt, enjoy a well-deserved reputation for excellence in design and workmanship. Possibly the only piano made with a spruce rim — going against the conventional wisdom that a piano rim must be made of hard, dense woods such as maple or beech — most Bösendorfers sound best when voiced on the mellower side. When voiced up to a brighter sound, they tend to sound hard-edged and with short sustain rather than singing, and the tone may distort in louder playing. An exception to this is the company's 9' 2" model 280 concert grand, in which maple is used to stiffen and add mass to the outer rim, and to create the potential for a more powerful instrument with better tonal sustain. When I tried this model at the Bösendorfer factory soon after it was introduced, I immediately felt it was the most impressive Bösendorfer I had ever played.
Several years ago Bösendorfer introduced the Conservatory Series (CS). These pianos have a less expensive finish and a few cosmetic differences, but are otherwise the same as the regular series while costing $20,000 to $30,000 less. (Originally, the CS pianos had loop stringing instead of the regular series' individually hitched strings, but this difference has since been abandoned.) Because I can't imagine that these differences are worth that much, the CS pianos seem a very good deal for those whose interest in the Bösendorfer piano is primarily musical rather than cosmetic. My own experience with servicing CS pianos suggests that they might not receive the same amount of technical preparation in the factory as the regular pianos, though Bösendorfer claims otherwise. — Steve Brady
The Bösendorfer is truly a unique piano. The instruments are built on solid spruce inner and outer rims and keybeds, with a beech cap on the inner rim serving as both a mounting surface for the soundboard and a hardwood base for the plate mounting hardware. With exquisite design and meticulous workmanship, the pianos hold up well, and are excellent candidates for rebuilding due to their original design and high resale value.
Properly voiced, a Bösendorfer's tonal palette offers the advanced player a wider spectrum of timbre than do many other pianos. To truly experience what Bösendorfers have to offer requires that the prospective owner spend time discovering a different way of perceiving lyrical tone. In particular, the rich, clear sound of the tenor section brings definition to the inner notes of chords and harmonies, while the clarity of the lower treble cannot be overplayed. There is surprising volume and tremendous carrying power — not necessarily heard at the piano bench — throughout all ranges. However, attempts to voice a Bösendorfer to sound like a Steinway typically result in a piano that lacks the richness of the tenor voices, with reduced volume and limited carrying power, even though it will likely have a very sonorous, pleasant, and engaging sound. — Ed Whitting
Estonia pianos have caused quite a buzz in the industry over the past ten years. For many of those years I was head of technical services for a large Estonia dealer, so I can personally attest to one of the biggest reasons for the company's success: It is owned by technically knowledgeable musicians who listen to — and actually implement — suggestions made by technicians both inside and outside their distribution network. As a result, the instruments are extremely well crafted and engineered, and quality control is excellent.
Characteristic of the Estonia piano is a round, singing tone — warm, rich, never harsh. This tone has a large and variable voicing range; in the hands of a good voicer, the tone can be sculpted and adapted to the client's preference. Movable duplexes offer technicians tonal options not always available with other high-end brands. The actions are well designed, easy to play, and responsive, though good action and tonal preparation by the dealer are necessary to achieve the best results from a new instrument. There are very few complaints or issues with this brand, and the relatively low price makes Estonia stand out in the competitive high-end market. — Arlan Harris
Producing almost entirely for the American market, Estonia has come on as a formidable competitor in the market for moderately priced, performance-grade pianos. These rock-solid instruments feature the low-tension scale favored by most American pianists and exemplified by Steinway, and are less "European" by most other measures as well. Having regularly serviced several Estonias over the years, I find them to be strong workhorses, built like tanks, and much loved by their pianist owners. The Renner actions are as responsive as any on the planet, and the tone can be refined and hammers voiced to compare with those of far more prestigious instruments. Since musicians seldom earn great wealth playing the piano, it's necessary to find a high-quality instrument that is both affordable and satisfying to play. Estonia fills that bill very nicely. — Steve Pearson
Fazioli is a boutique piano company that is making waves in the industry with a unique sound and concept. An expensive instrument, miraculously engineered and made with only the finest materials and components, the Fazioli has set new industry standards for elegance. Each instrument is expertly prepared, and tested in the company's concert hall prior to shipment from the factory in Italy. It is really quite easy for the technician to attend to these pianos in concert situations; they have few quirks and are extremely stable, rugged, and reliable.
The Fazioli tone is clear, pure, and profound, the midsection is rich, and every treble note up to the last is full, balanced, and sonorous. But compared to makes such as Steinway and Mason & Hamlin, the Fazioli sound is relatively lacking in tonal color. Many artists who enjoy performing on Faziolis praise having a "clean slate" to work with, especially when playing Bach and other composers whose music demands a purer tone. Yet, miraculously, for music requiring greater coloration, it is still possible for the more advanced pianist to create such colors on the Fazioli — or at least a perception of these colors — seemingly out of thin air, through the expert management of touch, pedaling, and timing. — Arlan Harris
A famous European piano maker once remarked, "A Fazioli is a Steinway on steroids." That statement sums up my own feelings and experience with Fazioli. If you combine all of the positive attributes of the New York and Hamburg Steinways in the design of a new piano, then add an owner, head designer, and small production staff dedicated to building exactly to that design, you have the essence of a Fazioli. Fazioli pianos are finely crafted, hold up very well over the years, and one day will be excellent candidates for rebuilding owing to their original integrity and resale value. Extremely well built, the Fazioli piano is solid in every way. — Ed Whitting
With an output of fewer than 20 pianos a year, Feurich is possibly Europe's smallest maker, with a long, proud history of handcrafted instruments. Playing a Feurich produces the uncanny feeling that the hand is somehow connected directly to the music — rather like the piano version of a Porsche: fast, positive, and responsive. The tone is very large and rather "open" compared to the more "covered" sound of a Steinway or Blüthner. The dynamic range is huge, the tonal palette rich and varied, and the sustain long and strong in the melody section. In my experience, the touch weight is a tad higher than in comparable pianos, but this may be deemed necessary to match the quickness of response — a lighter action might be too easy to overplay. — Steve Pearson
Outfitted with Renner parts, a lively soundboard, and relatively soft, resilient Renner hammers that are very responsive to voicing, August Förster pianos are rewarding to work on. As imported, they arrive in remarkably accurate tune and need very little preparation, especially since they respond so well to fine adjustment.
The Förster is a connoisseur's instrument, with a consistent touchweight of 50 to 53 grams and a colorful palette — indeed, the pianist can almost "paint" with tone — and with much color even throughout the bass. While Steinway's bass has been considered fuzzy by some players and Bösendorfer's one-dimensional or "boomy" by others, the Förster's bass is beautiful in tone color. I have prepared Förster concert grands for chamber concerts, though not for performances in large halls with full orchestras; I would question whether they have sufficient power and projection for the latter. However, for chamber music and for home use, their lush color provides much pleasure from forte to pianissimo. The Förster has a less percussive sound than do many high-end grands, one that I feel is most suitable for Chopin and the Impressionists. Its exceptional color, however, will allow one to discover new subtleties in most repertoires. — Greg Boyd, RPT
My first experience with the Grotrian piano came in the mid-1980s. The PTG's New York City chapter had been invited to give its monthly meeting at Curt Swidler Artist Pianos — a then-new dealership specializing in high-end pianos — and, with measured curiosity, I attended. In the elegant showroom, we were surrounded by a variety of grands and uprights, principally from the Grotrian and Feurich factories in Germany.
Eventually I got a chance to work at Swidler's, on both Grotrians and Feurichs, and all of us there generally agreed that while both pianos had their strengths, for overall versatility, Grotrian was the winner. Feurich had a smooth, silky, intoxicating tone that begged for late-Romantic composers, especially someone like Scriabin. Beethoven would be okay; Bach was unthinkable. Grotrian was brilliant and balanced — almost any type of music fared well on them, though their in-your-face sound occasionally demanded more attention to voicing to retrieve subtlety. It was a feast when a real player came in, sat down, and let rip on one of these instruments.
There were technical aspects to the Grotrians that seemed singular, even unique. Since the Grotrian tone is very transparent, ease of voicing is essential. The Grotrian has been one of the easiest pianos I have ever had to voice, not only because of the fine quality of the hammers, but even more for the ease of performing other various facets of tone regulation, such as checking string level, setting the strings at the hitch pins and along the bridges, and, most important, the process of lifting the strings to create greater tonal sustain. This is where the quality of craftsmanship in the factory really shows itself, and no piano delivers better in these areas than the Grotrian.
Also, technicians are aware that some five-and-a-half foot pianos sound like seven-foot pianos. Among the instruments I service, I have a few Steinway Ms like that. Here too, however, Grotrian leads the pack: with the 5' 5" Grotrian, the exception was the one that did not sound like a seven-foot instrument.
Just the other day I visited a new 6' 10" Grotrian. Nothing has changed — it's still a thoroughbred. As I played and listened to each bass note, one by one, every fundamental was as clear as a bell, down to the very bottom. What a wonderful contrast to the thunderously visceral low end of a Steinway B. — John Woodruff, RPT
Over the last three-and-a-half years, I have been privileged to work as a freelance piano technician at the Hannover University of Music and Drama, in Hannover, Germany. Currently serving 1,200 students, this facility is in use 17 hours a day during the week and 12 hours a day on weekends. Of the more than 200 pianos we maintain, 78 are supplied by Grotrian and, being used primarily in rehearsal rooms, are continuously exposed to very heavy use. Unfortunately, due to constantly falling budgets, most of the instruments have never been overhauled — just tuned every other month and maintained in good playing order, in some cases for 17 years! Without a doubt, these pianos' stable construction and carefully selected materials have been key factors in enabling us to provide working instruments for so long with so few resources.
We are fortunate to enjoy a good working relationship with Grotrian, and receive good service and are promptly supplied with replacement parts when needed. There is also a listening ear at Grotrian, and an interest in experience gained working in the field. This has resulted in many pioneering innovations and constant improvement.
Wilhelm Grotrian, son of the company's founder, is quoted as having said, "Boys, build good pianos and everything else will take care of itself." This attitude has survived to the present day, and provides a secure foundation for all who build, sell, service, or own these fine instruments. — Stephen Barker
The Shigeru Kawai concert grand at our university is a great instrument. The action is wonderfully even, and the carbon-fiber composite action parts require less maintenance than do regular wooden action parts. Like most Kawais, the Shigeru is a very easy piano to work on. However, string mating [mating the hammers with the strings so that each hammer hits all its strings evenly] is a continual battle, and needs to be done with each tuning. Compared to our Hamburg Steinway, our Shigeru has a darker tone, and its sound doesn't carry as well all the way to the back of the hall. That said, both pianos are chosen about equally, with more soloists choosing the Steinway, while the Shigeru is chosen more for chamber music and accompaniment. — Anonymous
Shigeru Kawais are wonderful highend pianos, with a certain individuality from instrument to instrument. With long sustain and powerful projection in all ranges, they provide the pianist all that is expected of a performance-grade piano. When properly maintained, they are chosen by artists for live performances, recordings, and competitions. The balanced touch and even tone across the various registers are a delight to the advanced player. Although the parts and workmanship are superb, and the pianos are expected to hold up well, the brand has not been on the scene long enough to establish a long-term track record — perhaps the only drawback of this otherwise great instrument. Given the performance of other Kawai models, however, there is no reason to believe the Shigeru Kawai will be any less reliable. — Ed Whitting
Mason & Hamlin
Mason & Hamlin has always had many admirers — even fanatics — who love and worship their pianos. Having long enjoyed a position as Steinway's rival in quality, tone, and touch, modern Mason & Hamlins are still carefully crafted and engineered by some of the most innovative minds in piano technology.
The pianos are built like tanks, with a thick rim, heavy case ribs, and a massive full-perimeter plate, making each an instrument for a lifetime. Mason & Hamlin's "crown retention system" really works, keeping the soundboard crown intact and resisting shifts in the structure that normally come as the instrument ages. The tone is uniquely American — very warm, full, and rich — with a strong bass, and good sustain and singing quality in the treble. The pianos provide good voicing flexibility and range. Cabinet finishing can be a weak point, so one needs to inspect the finish prior to purchase. Properly set up and cared for, Masons are stable pianos with relatively low maintenance requirements.
Mason & Hamlin actions have been redesigned in recent years and are now much lighter and more responsive. Although the manufacture of action parts is outsourced, the parts seem to be of extremely good quality. Pianos can be purchased with these standard action parts, but Mason & Hamlin has also established a division called Wessell, Nickel & Gross, manufacturing an alternative set of nylon-fiber composite action parts of innovative design that, among other features, are impervious to humidity and temperature changes and are of lower weight. Mason & Hamlin pianos can be ordered with these highperformance parts, which can also be retrofitted into other brands of piano. The jury is still out on these parts, which are new in an industry that is slow to change, but I've used and tested them in several pianos with excellent results. — Arlan Harris
In many respects, a Sauter piano is a piano technician's dream. The instruments tune beautifully, and their fit and finish are very precise. Little things of which few owners are aware are a big help to the technician and to maintaining the instrument's stability, such as: Teflon sections in the keybed, so the action slides with little friction when the una corda (soft) pedal is used; easily adjusted pedal mechanisms; heavy-duty music desks with multiple adjustable positions that lock in place; super-heavy-duty casters and a lid prop with over-engineered hinges (not like the cheap, under-engineered casters and hinges found on some other prestigious brands); and the best, most easily adjusted damper parts, which enable very fine regulation. This is just a partial list, but you get the idea — Sauter is high quality, through and through.
There are only a couple of items that tend to need attention on these instruments. One is that the piano can sound too bright in some environments, so proper tone regulation is often necessary. The other is that the factory-set action tolerances are very tight, so the actions can become sluggish and need adjustment when the instrument is moved to a different climate. A good dealer knows this and will have the instruments properly regulated.
When looking at the price, keep in mind that Sauter pianos are also showpieces, art objects, and astounding musical instruments. Bravo! — Peter Clark, RPT
Sauter pianos are a delight to both player and technician. Beautifully designed and executed, they are among the finest pianos in the world. There's no skimping on the uprights, either, which are as thoroughly finished as the grands. Sauter's beautiful cabinet designs are the equal of their pianos' tonal designs: innovative, yet grounded in a classic piano tone that is both clear and singing. The hammers are very responsive to voicing, with little need for string leveling or hammer mating. Tuning is easily done and quite stable.
Sauter's innovations include, on the 7' 3" model 220 grand, soundboard markings to guide musicians performing music for prepared piano. (Music for prepared piano is modern music requiring the insertion of foreign objects between the strings, among other unconventional techniques.) The 220 is an awesome instrument; I can imagine buying one simply for its beauty and integrity as a musical instrument, even if I never used it as a "prepared piano." I've readied this model for concerts on many occasions, and the players have always made very positive comments about it. I've prepared only one Sauter concert grand, and found it equally responsive. As with most boutique European pianos, the tone is clear, but not particularly voluminous or aggressive. The bigger Sauters can certainly compete in larger halls with Steinways, Bösendorfers, and Yamahas, but may be best suited to theaters seating 400 to 600.
The upright pianos are very technician-friendly, in that the furniture practically disassembles itself and the pedals are easily regulated. Sauters are made to be serviced — a bit of an irony, as they probably won't need as much maintenance as some other brands. In fact, I thought Yamaha had cornered the market on ease of servicing — until I began working on Sauters. I especially like the R-2 Double Escapement action, whose extra spring gives the touch a very secure return reminiscent of that of a grand. Consequently, repetition is faster than on other uprights, with the possible exception of some Steingraeber models.
The Sauter grands are more traditional in their manner of disassembly and, as a group, are some of the better pianos I have worked on. But the 7' 6" Ambiente model of modern design, otherwise a beautiful instrument, is laden with screws that must be removed to pull out the action for service, reminding me of some older Baldwins in that regard. Though a problem only for the technician, it's annoying. Sauter suffers from lack of name recognition in the U.S., but that is the brand's only real drawback. The pianos are equal to or better than other high-end brands, and deserve a wider audience. — Chris Solliday, RPT