By Judith Cohen
For this issue’s piano review, Piano Buyer asked concert pianist Judith Cohen to try out five of the highest-rated Chinese grands between 6′ and 6′ 6″ long. This is a size range of piano commonly used by professionals — larger than the pianos in most homes, but smaller than those found on concert stages. The author concludes by commenting on the tradeoff between price and performance when considering whether to purchase a moderately priced or a high-end instrument. — Editor
Every time I perform a concert, I have to evaluate, analyze, and sum up my impressions of the instrument put before me. I often have less than 15 minutes of quality time to spend with the piano. The hall acoustic is always a factor in my assessment, as well as the type of concert: solo piano, chamber music, concerto with orchestra, etc. Unfortunately, even if there is an excellent piano technician nearby, he or she is rarely given the time to change anything once the piano is in its performance position on stage.
For this article, I have enjoyed the process of trying out and evaluating five different pianos without the pressure of actually having to give a concert on any of them! My responses, opinions, and reactions to each instrument are as a performing pianist, not as a piano technician or builder. Like most pianists, I have very little knowledge of this most complex and mysterious mechanism. I know that technicians often speak a different “language” from pianists, but we need each other, and must appreciate our differences.
I decided I would try each instrument with a variety of repertoire spanning close to three centuries of piano music, from Domenico Scarlatti (who had at least five early pianos in his inventory at the time of his death) through Bartók, and including Beethoven and Debussy.
Scarlatti’s sonatas K.14 in G Major and K.33 in D Major are full of light, quick passagework, and instantly give a pianist an impression of how responsive a piano action is, how good the repetition might be, and how easy or difficult it is to control. The Beethoven Bagatelles, Op.126, contain long lyrical lines. The pianist can feel and hear how well the tone sustains, and how easily a sense of melodic line can be created. This is always a challenge for pianist and piano — one needs a legato touch, pedaling finesse, and an instrument that “sings.” I always hope for a piano with a long tonal sustain, as well as tonal color and complexity. This is very subjective, of course — especially the perception of color — and not all pianists experience tone in the same way.
I always love playing a couple of Debussy Études, such as “Pour les huits doigts” or the “Arpeggio.” These fiendishly difficult works encompass an instrument’s extreme bass and treble, and give the pianist a sense of its possibilities in dynamic range and color. Debussy’s music requires a tremendous variety of volume levels in the softer dynamic ranges. I can always predict how softly I will be able to play on an instrument after just a few minutes of Debussy’s subtle and exquisite music.
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók has long been a favorite composer of mine. His music demands rhythmic precision and control of articulation. I am always able to tell how much subtlety of articulation (varieties of staccato, accents, two-note slurs, tenuto, portato, etc.) I can execute on an instrument after playing Bartók. I like to try “With Drums and Pipes,” one of the movements from his Out of Doors suite. Besides being, rhythmically, lots of fun to play, this piece uses the lowest bass notes of the piano for the “drum” effect. Instantly I can hear how much resonance, power, and color I can expect from the lower bass.
Ritmüller GH-188R (6′ 2″)
I was more impressed with the Ritmüller’s tonal color, and its sustained singing quality in the mid-treble, than with those of any of the other instruments reviewed. The tone didn’t decay as rapidly as with some Asian pianos I’ve played, and the tonal color was more complex and varied — characteristics that made playing the Beethoven Bagatelles enjoyable on this instrument.
The clarity of the high treble was good, though too bright for my taste. The transition from the bass up through the tenor and lower treble strings was smooth, and the resonance and clarity of pitch in the low bass were quite good. I noticed that the showroom’s acoustic was flattering (high ceilings) but not overwhelming (carpeted floors).
Unfortunately, my positive impression of this instrument was marred by a touch that felt shallow, uneven, and somewhat heavy and tiring to play. A lack of speed and reliability of repetition also contributed to the impression that the action probably needed further regulating. The pedals were easy to depress and worked well, but unlike what I’ve come to expect from high-end instruments, use of the una corda (soft) pedal didn’t seem to change the timbre.
Heintzman 186 (6′ 1″)
When I arrived to try the Heintzman, I found I had the pleasure of having two samples to try! They had recently been used for a theater production about two pianists, and each instrument had been voiced to one pianist’s taste. I spent most of my time on the piano in the main showroom, but after spending some time playing both instruments, I was struck again by the importance of the piano technician in determining the sound (voicing) and feel (regulation) of any particular piano.
I enjoyed playing the Debussy “Arpeggio” Étude because of this instrument’s wide dynamic range and good singing quality. The transition from the bass section to the tenor was very smooth. An abrupt change in tone from the mid-treble to the much brighter high treble was a bit disconcerting, however, and some tubbiness in a few of the bass notes suggested the need for a little voicing to even things out.
As with the Ritmüller, the Heintzman action felt shallow and a little tiring to play; with the Heintzman, however, repeated notes were nevertheless easy to execute. I did find some distracting action noises in the treble — soft clicking sounds as the keys were depressed. This seemed to happen starting from C above middle C and proceeding about an octave and a half upward. Also, the touch felt uneven and a little difficult to control, especially in the tenor section. The three pedals worked well, though I had to work quite hard to depress them. I especially appreciated that I was able to play quite softly with the una corda pedal depressed.
Perzina T-188 (6′ 1″)
Perhaps due to its being voiced very brightly, even shrill in some places, the Perzina seemed lacking in tonal color, especially in the treble. I realize that this is a matter of taste, and that, in general, all pianos seem to be voiced more brightly today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Larger concert halls, changing expectations of sound, and an explosion of piano competitions have undoubtedly contributed to this trend, with the result that a piano in a showroom now probably must be voiced brightly to compete in the marketplace. I was taught to “pull” the sound out of the piano, and to produce the tone as much as possible. I think most piano customers today prefer the tone to jump out at them.
The transition in the low tenor from treble to bass strings was very good, however, and the bass section was one of the best of the five pianos I played — its clarity and resonance were superb. Because of this, the Bartók “With Drums and Pipes” worked very well on this piano. Interestingly, despite the brightness, I found it quite easy to play softly on the Perzina. I did not have to use the una corda pedal to do so, and I always appreciate that. In general, the action felt easy enough, but trills and turns were somewhat difficult to execute. All three pedals worked well and were easy, but not too easy, to depress, and the una corda provided a nice tonal contrast.
I also enjoyed looking at this piano’s interesting hardware and cabinet detail, including a Perzina coat of arms with lengthy wording on the fallboard decal, and a chrome coat of arms over one of the plate expansion holes.
Brodmann PE 187 (6′ 2″)
When I first sat down at the Brodmann, I was relieved to be playing a piano that, despite a rather live room acoustic, didn’t sound too bright. It had a singing quality in the mid-treble, with a very nice sustain. However, I missed being interested in the tone — it just wasn’t that complex or compelling — and the resonance and tonal color varied a lot throughout the various registers. For example, the two octaves proceeding upward from F# above middle C seemed a little dull, almost tubby in sound, and it was hard to experience any tonal color in this area. The same could be said for the upper bass. On the other hand, the transition area in the low tenor was quite good, and there was excellent resonance from the lowest notes on the keyboard up to the second E from the bottom. Despite these variations, in general the instrument had a quite wide dynamic range.
I enjoyed the feel of the action; it felt very free, and it was easy to execute trills and passagework. On this well-regulated action, I was finally able to enjoy playing the Scarlatti. This was, perhaps, the most enjoyable of the actions I played for this review./p>
All three pedals seemed fine, and the una corda produced a nice tonal shift that was not too shocking a contrast.
Hailun 198 (6′ 5″)
The Hailun had good sustain in the treble. The tone didn’t decay too quickly and wasn’t thin. But, as with the Brodmann, the tone lacked color and just wasn’t that interesting. There was very good clarity in the high treble, however, and the piano in general was evenly voiced. Debussy’s “Pour les huits doigts” Étude is filled with rapid scale passages that are supposed to blend seamlessly into one another; it worked well on this instrument, whose tone never got “nasty” or too bright. My impression of the Hailun’s tone was probably influenced by the showroom acoustic, which was slightly drier than the others I had visited — besides the carpeting, the ceilings were lower.
The transition from treble to bass was very good. The resonance and clarity of the bass strings were very impressive, especially in the lowest notes. This may have been influenced by the instrument’s size: three or four inches longer than the others I tried. Bartók’s “With Drums and Pipes” was really fun to play on this piano. The tone was very resonant in the lowest bass octave; above that it was still good, but not as thrilling. The dynamic range throughout was quite good, though I would have enjoyed greater variety at the soft end of the dynamic spectrum.
For the most part, the Hailun action was enjoyable to play and musically responsive. There were distracting noises, however, from a number of notes in various registers of the piano when the sustain pedal was depressed. And when I depressed the una corda pedal, I heard little difference in volume or color.
I’m not an expert on piano cabinetry and hardware, but in general, I was impressed with this aspect of all the pianos I reviewed. All the lids except that of the Ritmüller were quite heavy to lift, however, and I’m used to lifting the lids of 7′ and 9′ grands. The music desks of the Ritmüller and the Perzina were fitted too tightly to be easily removed and replaced, and the propstick on the Heintzman didn’t fit well to the lid. Other than these minor issues, however, the finish, hardware, and cabinetry seemed fine.
To conclude, given the good quality of pianos being made today in China and elsewhere in Asia, it is interesting and only natural to wonder whether a high-end piano such as a Steinway is worth five times as much as one of the instruments reviewed, and whether the Chinese instruments would be suitable for an advanced pianist such as myself.
Clearly, a pianist looking to upgrade from an old upright or an electronic keyboard will find a wider range of dynamic and orchestral possibilities with these pianos, especially if the instrument has been voiced well. The Chinese pianos allow a pianist to perform the full range of piano repertoire and technique. Composers from Bach and Beethoven to Chopin and Liszt, as well as jazz, contemporary, and popular music, can sound quite good on these instruments. I can imagine that a pianist looking to develop his or her technique could grow a lot while practicing on any of these pianos.
As a concert pianist, I have spent most of my performing life adapting to whatever piano is put in front of me in a concert space. I was trained to get the most out of any piano, even if it meant imagining and trying to create a sound different from what was emanating from the instrument I was playing. But if I could no longer perform on a high-end piano, or at least practice on one at home, my musical existence would feel quite barren.
I think the main quality I missed in all five pianos was tonal color and complexity. I am used to working with a whole world of tonal color that I just did not experience with these instruments, or did not experience as fully throughout the entire keyboard as I do with more expensive pianos. To me, this is what separates pianos that are simply very good — which these are — from those that are superb. That said, for those whose needs are not at the concert level, these professional-size pianos from China offer tremendous value for the money, and can take a pianist very far in his or her musical training.
PRICES OF MODELS REVIEWED*
Broadmann PE 187
*MSRP = Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price. Not all manufacturers issue MSRPs.