Steinway, Bosendorfer, Fazioli, Schimmel, Bluthner, Bechstein… many of these piano makers of German or Italian origin, manufacture instruments valued as high as the cost of a house – 100s of thousands of dollars in some cases. Why can they command such a high price tag? Even their smaller pianos will be priced substantially higher, sometimes 3 or 4 times that of their lesser valued competition.
Perhaps the most expensive ‘standard’ concert grand (not an ‘art-case’ piano sometimes worth millions) is the recently conceived Stuart and Sons piano. This innovative piano from Australia, adds 20 notes to the standard keyboard, going down 9 notes to C0 and up 11 notes to B8 for a total of 108 keys. It is also innovative in the way it uses an agraffe-on-bridge system to create tone and sustain through string offset and not the traditional ‘downbearing’ method. This is the type of innovation and attention to detail that makes a great piano. Whether the “Accelerated Action” of the Steinway or the Mason and Hamlin “Tension Resonator”, the great piano makers are often responsible for some of the best improvements in the evolution of the piano. Imagine what shared invention and ignoring of patents could produce in the way of a ‘Supreme’ piano.
On a personal level, I have been enamoured with some Steingraeber and Sohne pianos which I first encountered while on a vacation in Paris. Its charm, sweetness of tone, decorative cabinetry and responsiveness of touch make it a favourite of mine. Once in Calgary, Alberta, I spent some time with a Bosendorfer “Imperial” concert grand and was thoroughly intimidated. Truly a piano meant for a great improviser like Oscar Peterson who often played one. Its black-coloured added bass notes were ‘growly’ and powerful. Then there was a beautiful Steinway ‘B’ built in the 1920s that I helped to restore. Truly one of my favourites as it was one of the few pianos that would make me feel like crying at times affecting my emotions deeply. A seven foot Baldwin and a similar sized Mason and Hamlin also stir up fond memories for me from among the many pianos I’ve serviced for clients of mine.
I was thrilled one day to hear Chick Corea, a great Latin Jazz icon, playing a concert in Spain. (Thank-you YouTube.) He paused between songs to address the audience. At one point he felt compelled to mention the importance of having a capable piano technician. He had been playing brilliantly and seemingly with ease. He said a piano can be a “real dog” if not attended to by such a tuner/technician. So when we ask who makes the best piano, it is important to remember that a piano’s true potential and worth may not be readily apparent until it is fully serviced and restored and well maintained. For those few who can afford and appreciate the “great” pianos, this extra expense and resultant musical bragging rights is achievable.
At the other end of the spectrum is the lowly used upright console piano. Some of the greatest musicians and composers worked out great music on these. One example comes to mind. The Beatles masterfully created classic modern songs like “Imagine” on just such a piano. So again, the term ‘Best Piano’ is subjective. It is subject to its intended purpose, the goals of the performer, the work of a piano technician, the acoustics of a venue and the finances of a prospective owner. A stride-playing street performer may love his portable spinet but nothing less than his custom regulated Steinway “D” would do for Vladimir Horowitz. May you find your own “Best” piano.