Carte blanche literally translated means “blank card”, a canvas ready for creation. But it also denotes “blank cheque”, signed with no numerical value yet filled in. Such was the case for famed piano engineer Stephan Mohler and designer Lothar Thomma when asked by Pearl River to build a line of pianos with no holds barred. They were given creative and financial freedom to produce pianos similar to their heritage in Europe – having worked for both C.Bechstein and Steingraeber. Pearl River, presently the largest piano company in the world producing more than 100,000 pianos annually has impressed the musical community with the vast improvements in their pianos yearly with contributions from Thomma on both the Pearl River and Ritmuller lines. In the largest growth market in the world (China), they have become the undisputed champion surpassing even Yamaha in volume.
For those of you who are sceptics, I can relate. It wasn’t until interviewing the CEO of Pearl River America, Al Rich at NAMM 2011 that I started to follow this company more closely. He stated that instead of hiring a small army of manpower to facilitate manufacturing, they chose rather to invest millions into automated CNC machines. So advanced is their manufacturing that companies like Steinway (with their brand Essex) have entrusted them to build their pianos.
Fast forward to January 2013, Pearl River Piano Group (PRPG) released the all new Kayserburg line. PRPG successfully constructed a “company within a company” – a separate division to undertake building their highest level of instruments to compete with European makers for the most discerning pianists. So what makes a piano compete at this level? Only those with a background, namely Thomma and Mohler would know.
Introducing Kayserburg pianos featuring:
Louis Renner premium hammers from Germany ~ Ebony wood sharps ~ European Roslau strings ~
High elevation spruce soundboard ~ Maple bridges vertically laminated with rosewood, beech capped ~
Traditional sand cast plate ~ Nickel blued tuning pins ~ Schwander type action with all maple parts ~ Solid spruce keys with maple buttons ~ Tuned hammer shanks ~ Hand wound bass strings ~ Quarter sawn ribs doweled to the soundboard and mortised to the rim ~ “Ivolan” German keytops (mineral-plastic substance that is very ivory-like) ~ Hand-made by the Artist team and each finished product inspected by Mohler
What caught my attention was a blind ‘taste test’ in California this January where the Kayserburg went head to head against some of the most expensive pianos in the world. The results? 80% thought that it was the highest priced piano. 100% thought that it was within the top 2. In fact, the retail price was the lowest.
It was stated by one pianist “the touch of this piano is so far superior to the others that it MUST be the most expensive one.” Why mention this piano? I think it’s going to be one worth watching in the coming years. Never before has China produced a piano that can compete on a Tier 1 (highest) level of pianos… all for a price that is by most considered reasonable. Grands to follow within the next year.
My only caution is to not get the branding levels of Kayserburg confused. Apparently Pearl River has in past used the Kayserburg name in Australia. This new series is appropriately called the “Artist” series and is labelled in the top right corner of the cabinet (as pictured). The other Kayserburgs are apparently more similar to the Ritmuller line except with laminated soundboards. New Artist pianos have the model designation KA while the others are UH. They are vastly different pianos… and just wanted to clarify. If you want to see the pianos in Piano Price Point, simply press the button below.
From its inception in 1853, Henry Steinway had 2 goals – make pianos that produce beautiful music and build a successful company. The former is done through innovation and craftsmanship. The latter is a result of sales and marketing. With success (as in the case of Steinway and Sons) comes change. Procedures are multiplied and streamlined, while efficiency and productivity are examined. In the early years, Steinway manufactured 1000 pianos per year or roughly 80 per month. Within 7 years (1860), those numbers doubled.
By 1900, Steinway was producing three and a half times the amount of pianos they originally made per year and then by the 1920’s, they were producing 5000 per year. Think about making approximately 400 pianos per month. That’s a major accomplishment for the 1920’s. It begs the question however, “why more?” Why do companies need to be bigger, better, stronger, faster? In a word – economics. It’s just business.
The year 1972 marked when Steinway was first sold out of the hands of the Steinway family to CBS. After plans to build a musical conglomerate didn’t turn out as speculated, the company was sold to a group of Boston investors in 1985. In 1996, the company became a publicly traded stock with Samick (Korean piano company) as the major stock holder. It wasn’t until July 1st, 2013 that Kohlberg put an offer on the table of $438 million for the company. Steinway had a 45 day period in which to shop for higher bidders. Samick placed a bid of $499 million which was topped once more on August 14th, by Paulson & Co. with a bid of $512 million.
So why the interest in purchasing a piano company like Steinway? Money moguls aren’t interested in sitting on a company for the sake of boasting rights. They’re in it for the same reason Henry Steinway was over 100 years ago: to make sales. The concern from many is that the company will get watered down. Despite the trends of the last decade to trade upon name value and cash in for the ‘quick nickel’ selling name rights to produce lower priced products, it is apparent that many companies conversely see the upper middle class emerging in areas such as Russia, Brazil and China. What John Paulson is interested in is a great American icon – one that is so branded, it is synonymous with quality. In the words of Bloomberg Businessweek “The Steinway brand is both opulent and bulletproof”. It is my opinion that it would be unwise to rock the boat as it were in production if the aim is set at higher sales and market share of luxury items. Giants such as Kohlberg and Paulson hedge bets not on dismantling companies but developing new markets and pushing values higher because they want to get their money’s worth. After all, they didn’t exactly buy it for a song.
Earlier this year, Kawai introduced us to their newest GX line of pianos following nearly a 20 year run with the RX series. Continuing on with their high tech Millenium III actions made of styran infused with carbon fiber, the piano scale has also been redesigned. However there are bigger structural changes which are outlined here:
1. Stretcher widened. The stretcher is the perpendicular beam (pictured left with lock plate) that connects the left/right sides of the rim. Kawai has solidified this beam and connected it to the pinblock and frame to act as a single unit.
2. Concert key buttons. Notice that the length of the key buttons (pictured right with red bushings) are very long acting as structural reinforcement to the key. Stiffer keys mean better energy transfer to the action.
3. Longer keys in all models. This lengthens the distance from the fulcrum (pivot point) enabling both greater control in dynamics and minimizing touch difference from front to back of the key at the keyboard.
4. New rim design called “Konsei katagi” meaning “mixed temperament”, mixing 2 alternating woods, one from northern grown closed pore hardwood, the other a tropical grown open grain wood provides both projection,warmth and full body.
5. New tapered soundboard. Using straight grained, quarter-sawn solid spruce for the GX line, the new soundboard taper offers greater sustain and projection.
The year 2012, marking their 125th anniversary, Yamaha introduced a new line of pianos. For those who have been in the trade, you will know that Yamaha became famous for their G series grands in the 60’s and 70’s. The C series soon became the popular models throughout the 80’s and 90’s and through the millennium. In 2010, Yamaha introduced a brand new concert grand replacing the CFIII with one called the CFX. Just two years later Yamaha unveiled the entire CX line utilizing the ‘trickle down’ effect where technology on the highest level of design has been applied to smaller sized grands. So what are the features of the new CX series? Like any scale design changes, they must be observed first hand. But here’s the skinny on major points.
1. Thicker back-post structure. Yamaha has increased the thickness by about 20% on supportive beams.
2. New soundboard design. Although not much has been revealed about what this entails, with years of experience and millions of pianos having been made, Yamaha states that the new manufacturing process to create the crown offers more projection and response.
3. New hammers. Based on the same felt as the CFX concert grand, these new hammers offer wider color range and tonal expression.
4. European wire is now utilized throughout the CX series presenting more pure fundamentals and distinctive sustained overtones.
5. Cabinet redesign. Pedal lyre, case arm, music rack and legs now have a minimalist look to them.
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