By a stroke of good fortune my business travel schedule opened up in March 2008. There was a window of time during which I could travel to Germany to visit the Frankfurt Musikmesse and then to visit the Sauter factory (which I will write about in a separate post). I would be meeting Alvin in Frankfurt.
I arrived in Frankfurt after a 12-hour flight from Singapore. The show actually started on 13th March but I couldn’t travel any earlier.
As usual I used the opportunity of a long flight to catch up on some sleep, and I managed to get in a solid eight hours between supper and breakfast. Getting through immigration and customs at Frankfurt airport was a breeze. It’s not exactly peak period at 06h00 in the morning!
From there it was a quick 20-minute dash in a taxi to the Marriott. It was a little alarming to see that the driver was doing 140 km/h in the rain. I checked to make sure that my seat belt was fastened. Then looked up to watch another car whiz past us at something in excess of 160 km/h.
Alvin met me around 09h30 for breakfast, after which we walked the 100 metres or so to the Musikmesse. The show is enormous. It is spread over nine vast halls.
Disclaimer: My notes below are my own observations. If you don’t agree with my assessment of the various pianos please don’t flame me because those are my opinions and could be wildly wrong. Or I could be extremely biased.
Pictures are here. The guest password is ‘digit’. Some of the pictures have comments that are long. When in slideshow viewing mode, if you hover your mouse pointer over the comment below a picture, a bubble will pop up showing the full text of the comment.
- The forte section in Hall 6 is noisy. (But not the noisiest. That honour goes to the section selling gear for DJs and dance clubs.) Imagine, pianos everywhere, and being played, sometimes pounded, on a lot of the time. By far the noisiest part of the hall was at the end where the Sauter booth was located, because in close proximity were Grotrian-Steinweg, Blüthner, Seiler, Steingraber, and Petrof.
- Most times it was very difficult to hear the piano one is playing. So you try to play snatches during the quieter moments. Good to have somebody else with you to do the listening and as a cross check for what you hear.
- The Musikmesse’s regular ‘artiste’ Paul Davis played everyday to an entourage of admirers. He apparently spends most of his time on Tier 1 concert grands. On two days that I was at the show he played piano arrangements of Gershwin “American in Paris”, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Fantastic technique, thunderous power. Seems to enjoy the attention!
- Steinway and Bösendorfer have not participated in the Musikmesse for over ten years. Notable absentees from last year are Bechstein and Schimmel, and Fazioli.
- Booth fees are very high. Maybe that’s why some manufacturers aren’t there. Or maybe some think that they don’t need to be there?
- After playing all the Tier 1 and lower tier pianos in the show, I’ve come to the conclusion that people hear and feel what they are pre-conditioned to hear and feel. So when they go to play a Tier 1 piano they look for the instrument’s strong points and go into denial about the weaknesses. Me included. (Perhaps the name on the fallboard should be masked when the piano is being auditioned!) But if you are happy with your choice then it is as good as any other, weaknesses and all! All in all, I believe that the Sauter Omega 220 that I ordered is a complete piano with very few weaknesses.
- The worst pianos sounded like they were made from rubber bands stretched over a wooden crate.
- Located at one end of the forte hall.
- Peter Maly designed the booth, booth furniture, all the [edit: designer] uprights and the Ambiente. The armchairs and sofa have great ergonomics. All his designs have clean, almost organic forms.
- Showing almost the entire range of instruments. No micro-tonal piano, no Alpha 160, no Vivace.
- Palatino, a Chinese company, was showing a counterfeited Sauter Rondo upright at their booth in Hall 3. Sauter (and Maly) found out about it when they saw it in an a Palatino advertisement in the trade show daily. I went looking for it on Saturday 15th, but it had been removed from the show floor. Looks like somebody had a quiet word with Palatino.
- At the end of the day on Friday 14th somebody sat down at the Ambiente and played ‘Besame Mucho’. Wow!
- Met Russell Kassman, Bay area Sauter dealer, and friend Bill Kuntzman (who works 3 days a week in the shop). Delightful gentlemen. Russell is passionate about his business, and takes great pride in presenting his instruments in the best shape possible. He once sent a customer away for suggesting that a Yamaha upright was under-prepped to make it sound bad next to a Kawai.
- Saturday 15th was the last day of the show, open to the public. Lots of families and kids. Sauter likes to have the little kids and teenagers play on their pianos, because these are future customers!
- Almost all of the pianos on the floor were sold to dealers. The only instruments that weren’t sold were the Concert 275 and the Ambiente.
- There was gossip on the trade show floor about recent purchases by the Oslo Opera House. They were shopping for grand pianos and uprights, and sent a team of three people around Europe to evaluate all the Tier 1 vendors. They ended up buying 4x Sauter Omega 220, 5x Sauter Delta 185, 4x Sauter uprights, 4x Yamaha S4 grand pianos, and 1x Steinway grand piano (don’t know which one).
- One of Russell’s customers, whom I shall call Mike (not his real name), showed up in the early afternoon of Friday 14th. He’d come all the way just to choose between Steingraber and Blüthner for his home, to augment an old 1890’s Steinway he already had. He had never considered Sauter, but it became one of his choices after visits to Steingraber, Blüthner and Sauter. Certainly he enjoyed the company at the Sauter booth, spending the rest of his time there after the visits, snacking on pastries and mini-pizza, and sipping on some nice German beer.
- ’Mike’ subsequently visited the Steingraber and Blüthner factories on Monday 17th March, and the Sauter factory the next day. All of us had a great time over dinner at an Irish pub in Tuttlingen on 17th March, it being St Patrick’s Day and all.
Steingraeber & Söhne
- Beautiful cases, but the fit of some parts could be better if some of the precision cutting is done by machine rather than by hand.
- Treble bright and piercing, bass big but not articulate in dense music.
- One grand had a carbon fibre layer under the soundboard, attached to the soundboard by numerous screws. The idea is to help the wooden soundboard resist warping due to changes in relative humidity. Maybe the piano wasn’t prepped properly because it sounded really bad.
- Not quite sure why they are making such a big deal out of the Phoenix System. Needs more critical listening in a better environment?
- Trade show floor gossip: Steingraber uprights contain Yamaha action parts. And the sales rep was rubbishing Yamaha upright actions. Oops! Maybe there is a difference between using action parts and using whole actions from Yamaha?
- Sales rep was claiming that Steingraber was the first piano manufacturer in the world to use an accelerated action in an upright to mimic the grand’s repetition action. Wrong. Nearly 500 accelerated actions were invented since the early days of the upright piano, many are variations of the same thing.
- Top two octaves and bottom two octaves don’t match the middle. Needs the assistance of a smaller more acoustically sympathetic space in which to get a lift?
- Not a friendly, inviting booth design. The entire space was enclosed in curtains, and brightly lit with very bright white lights so that you can see through the curtains.
- Average sustain, OK action, tonally bland, dynamic range average.
- At the end of the show on the last day all the Seiler staff came over to the Sauter booth for drinks. The piano manufacturing industry in Europe is small, and everyone knows everyone else. At the NAMM 2008 show Seiler arrived with instruments and an empty booth. Sauter bought furniture and supplies for them.
- The AF190 sounded dull and muffled. Their concert grand was too one-dimensional, and lacking dynamic range.
- After Alvin took one picture one of the AF guys told us to stop taking pictures of their pianos!
- I think the Chinese manufacturers are really making the old establishment very nervous. It’s almost embarrassing to be of Chinese ethnicity and think that some Chinese manufacturers have absolutely no respect for other people’s intellectual property. This selfish, make-money-at-all-costs-and-screw-the-others attitude has to (will?) change if China is to become a respected economic superpower. Now that China is a member of the WTO, it must ensure that counterfeiters and pirates can be prosecuted and that the courts are willing and able to hand out punitive, deterrent sentences.
- But I got my pictures in the end, on Saturday 15th. I shot with a telephoto lens from across the aisle.
- New Blüthners are not as good as the old ones.
- Dynamic range is average. Timbre does not change with loudness, no tonal complexity.
Mason & Hamlin
- The American sound is not for me. Upper half of the keyboard is too bright and jangly.
- Has a Chinese party taken a controlling stake in the company? I hear that there is at least one Chinese national present at the M&H booth at every show, in some capacity or another.
- Attention to detail is lacking. Felt strip at the back edge of the fallboard (visible when the fallboard is up) is frayed and looks to be of poor quality.
- The most interesting exhibit at the booth was the Sync-A-Vision gadget (best used with the PianoDisc iQ system).
- The larger ones contain a real piano action!
- Did not take pictures.
- Too much hype and too little substance. The BG187 felt and sounded like the one I tried in Singapore – lacked dynamic range, tonally dull and boring, OK action. On the other hand, if there is a strong demand for the piano, I guess people might be juiced up enough by the hype to pay the new premium anyway.
- Uprights are tonally uneven. There are timbre differences between adjacent notes!
- OK dynamic range. Lacks timbre change with volume.
- Springy, rubbery feel at the bottom of the keystroke still feels odd to me. When I first encountered it in Singapore I thought that it felt good, but now I think that it robs the feel of some precision.
- Enormous booth taking up most of the ground floor of a building.
- And they need the space, because they have an enormous range of products.
- The best environment for listening to their top end pianos. A separate room accessed through a soundproofed door, and with the acoustic tuned by large movable baffles. Unfortunately you can hear the brass band doing their demo in an adjacent performance space.
- On display were an S4, S6, CFIIIs, U7, and YUS5. All other models of grands and uprights are outside in “Piano Avenue” and “Grand Piano Way.”
- Perhaps a better piano could be had by using the Yamaha action in a Kawai piano!