Great pianos are like sports cars: They have passionate adherents, their owners are often fiercely loyal to one brand, and at the top of the line, the differences between one and another come down in part to personal preference. Here’s a rundown of some of the top names in the field.
Famed as the quintessential Viennese piano and certainly one of the oldest makers still in existence (founded in 1828), Bösendorfer is known for the warmth and sophistication of its sound. It’s not as loud as some instruments, a deliberate choice by a manufacturer that deliberately uses softer wood on the rim of the frame to create a softer and less ringing tone. The company was purchased by Yamaha in 2008. Two venerable German brands are Blüthner, manufactured in Leipzig continuously since 1853 and thus a witness to East German history, and Steingraeber, located in Bayreuth since 1852 and now run by the sixth generation of its founding family. Adherents of Steingraeber tend to wax particularly passionate about the instrument’s sheer beauty.
Designed by an Italian sound engineer who comes from a long line of furniture makers, the Fazioli piano, introduced in 1981, is among the newest, longest and most expensive pianos on the market. Designed completely from scratch after years of research, these pianos are made with spruce from one particular Italian forest, in the Val di Fiemme, which was also a source for the wood of Stradivari’s violins, and are trimmed in 18-karat gold; the longest model, measuring 10 feet, 10 inches in length, is fitted with a fourth pedal, which moves the hammers closer to the strings to make the transition from loud playing to soft more seamless. The company eschews exclusivity, but a number of concert pianists have begun at least flirting with the instruments, praising its range of sound and color. Another maverick technician, the Australian Wayne Stuart, established his own exclusive factory, Stuart & Sons, in 1990; many of his pianos sport 14 more keys than the standard 88. Their sound has been described as cool and clear.
Yamaha has long been one of the biggest producers in the field, cranking out reliable mid-tier instruments. Recently, though, it’s moved into real competition with Steinway at the high end of the market by virtue of the CFX line, 19 years in the making, improving on the already-heralded CFIII line; the instrument’s adherents say it’s on a par with the finest concert pianos. Among its rivals is the Shigeru Kawai, another handcrafted pearl launched in 2001, after years of development, by a line sometimes perceived as more utilitarian; its concert series, launched in 2012, gets ratings from some comparable to the CFX. Meanwhile, Chinese piano makers are stepping up their games to satisfy that country’s huge and burgeoning demand, and some experts say it’s only a matter of time before a superb Chinese piano comes onto the market.
We can’t leave them out. The main division in the Steinway family is that between the Hamburg Steinways and the New York Steinways. Despite fundamentally similar blueprints, the Steinways made in Germany use different wood, different hammers and a different (shinier) finish, and are perceived as being more European and sophisticated in their sound. The New York Steinways, by contrast, come under fire from some aficionados for their lack of consistency from one instrument to another.