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The Steinway sound
#20741 11/18/04 11:06 AM
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AaronSF Offline OP
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I went to a piano party last night. The man who's rebuilding my Schiedmayer had finished work on 2 Steinway Bs, so had people over to try them out.

It was a wonderful evening, with a broad variety of playing. A husband/wife team played the first 2 movements of Brahms Op. 34b (his 2 piano arrangement of the Op. 34 quartet), another pianist played the Berg Op. 1 sonata, jumping back and forth between pianos, a couple of guys played some intricate ragtime improvising as they played, and there was a superb blues pianist, who really stole the show.

Both pianos were incredible, but one was a 1969 that had been totally rebuilt, while the other was a 1998 that had had just an action rebuild. As soon as I walked in the door I preferred the tone of the total rebuild (before I knew it was), as it was considerably mellower.

Let me preface what comes next by saying I think these were two superb Steinways, and I have immense respect for Steinway lovers. But if someone gave me unlimited funds to spend on an instrument, I'd choose just about any high-end German or Austrian instrument over an American Steinway, Bosendorfer being the sound I most prefer because of the utter evenness of the tone and the pear-shaped quality of the sound. I'd be almost as happy with an August Forster, a Bluthner, a Bechstein, or maybe a Grotrian, and if I had to buy American, it would be Mason & Hamlin.

Believe me, if I had the opportunity to own one of these instruments, I'd take it. In discussing Steinway it's important for me to emphasize that I think they're incredible instruments (especially when expertly rebuilt). So this is just a personal preference thing, in terms of the sound.

Hearing these two instruments together made me think about the Steinway sound and what it is about it that I don't like. To me they always sound like they should be in a large concert hall, not in someone's living room or even a small hall. Even the smaller instruments (Ms, Ls) have this quality. It mostly manifests itself in the treble during fortissimo playing, when the tone takes on an edge that sounds like it was intended to hit the back of Carnegie Hall, it's so piercing. I'm not saying it's an ugly or harsh sound, though it almost is...it stops just this side of harsh...but it comes close enough that it sort of sets my teeth on edge, if you know what I mean.

Anyone else get this sense I do of the Steinway sound?


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20742 11/18/04 11:18 AM
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Although I have limited experience with Steinways, I have really, really liked what I've played. But the choice was easy for me, I didn't have a Steinway budget. Even used. smile


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20743 11/18/04 12:09 PM
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AaronSF said:
"pear-shaped quality of the sound"

I am trying to picture this, but can't. Could you please explain what you mean?

To your question, I find Steinways to have, generally, quite a "strong" sound when you play louder. They sound more complex than Boesendorfer and the bass has a timbre (a certain roughness - high partials content) that is usually recognisable even on recordings.

Hard to describe these thigs with words anyway...

Calin


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20744 11/18/04 01:08 PM
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...by "pear-shaped" I suppose I mean a more bell-like sound as opposed to a crystalline sound. Bells produce sound that seems to me pear-shaped -- it's broad and deep at the outset, then tapers. A crystalline sound is more of a "ping" or "zing" -- a very sharp attack and then a more rapid decay. This is a gross generalization, I know, but to my ear, German instruments as a group seem to have more bell-like treble, whereas Steinway is more crystalline.

I agree that the Steinway sound is more complex than Bosendorfer, especially in the bass, which is probably what I'm reacting to...I prefer the less complex sound. But it's not just that. Steinways have a "bite" that no other piano has, it seems to me, and it's that "bite" that thrills most people but makes my hair stand on end sometimes.

By the way, that's some interesting rebuilding you're doing in Romania! Thanks for sharing your website with us.


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20745 11/18/04 02:38 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by AaronSF:

But if someone gave me unlimited funds to spend on an instrument, I'd choose just about any high-end German or Austrian instrument over an American Steinway, Bosendorfer being the sound I most prefer because of the utter evenness of the tone and the pear-shaped quality of the sound. I'd be almost as happy with an August Forster, a Bluthner, a Bechstein, or maybe a Grotrian, and if I had to buy American, it would be Mason & Hamlin.

AaronSF,

I think you do a little too much generalization here. From my point of view a Blüthner is a very different piano than a Bechstein and both of them have a very different sound when compared to August Förster.

I'd anticipate that a Steinway onwner wouldn't be too happy with a Blüthner and vice versa.

Best regards,
Jens

Re: The Steinway sound
#20746 11/18/04 04:25 PM
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Jens

Do you think all German brands are simply different from each other and that there is nothing German pianos have in common in terms of tone? I acknowledge my over-generalization, and I'm willing to surrender it to someone who has more direct experience with German pianos than I have! It's just that I have a sense, from the German pianos I've played, that Bluthner, Bechstein, Forster, etc., while all quite different from each other, are more similar in tone to each other than any of them are similar to a Steinway.


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20747 11/18/04 04:38 PM
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Spent some time yesterday at Steinway Hall going over all the Bs they had. After living with my 6'3" Grotrian for almost a year, I had the following comparisons to make. 1) amazing how poorly regulated (blocking etc) these pianos are. 2) Very difficult for Steinway to manage the break from bass to tenor. The Bs do it best. But still problematic. 3) The Steinway sound has a really high 1st overtone content and the "core" of the note is not as much "there" as on the Grotrian. I find more "complexity" on the Grotrian because of the additional higher overtones that you do hear. The Steinway sound is "noisy" or "dirty" to me by comparison because the fundamentals are so diminished.

Anyhow I did play a marvelous D that was a centennial edition (or some historic model). Amazing thing was - even though this one was well regulated, the white keys had some sort of error in beveling so that the left edge of each key had a very peculiar angle on the edge.

I just get the feeling that they are making a piano according to a template, but that nobody is really seeing that the whole system is functioning correctly together.

I think one of the issues Aaron is pointing out is that these German or Austrian pianos arrive as a wholly concieved and executed product.


Regards,

Grotriman
Re: The Steinway sound
#20748 11/18/04 06:15 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by Grotriman:
I just get the feeling that they are making a piano according to a template, but that nobody is really seeing that the whole system is functioning correctly together.
If they aren't regulated to a fairly high standard at the factory how can there be effective quality control? Maybe it just isn't possible for them to hire enough qualified technicians to do all of the work that other manufacturers perform at the factory. They do crank out an awful lot of these pianos.

Re: The Steinway sound
#20749 11/18/04 07:19 PM
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I don't think they have very good quality control over their pianos. Just going from the same model instrument, to the same model instrument, there's an enourmous difference. Steinway tries to use this as their selling point, but I see it as a downfall because the company almost doesn't seem to be skilled enough to regulate their pianos.

Personally, I hate Steinway (except for a few old, rebuilt Steinways, which were from around 1920) because I think their base sounds muddy and not loud enough compared to the treble. When I play them, I have trouble making the base sound prominent over a treble line if it's needed. I also don't like Steinway's action. I think it's way too stiff and stubborn. Steinway would be a lot better off if they just used Renner action... ? My personal favorites are August Forster and Schimmel (both high-end German pianos).


"If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music."

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Re: The Steinway sound
#20750 11/18/04 07:20 PM
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I was disappointed in my visit to Steinway Hall and unimpressed with what I found there. Many of the pianos I played were poorly prepped. I usually don't speak out so strongly, but I must say, I WOULDN'T IT BE GREAT if we were instead all commenting on the EXCELLENT DEALER PREP THAT ALLOWS US TO ACCURATELY ASSESS A PIANO ON THE SHOWROOM FLOOR!

Jeanne W

(I had a hard day. Everything is setting me off tonite. laugh )


Music is about the heart and so should a piano be about the heart. - Pique

1920 Steinway A3
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Re: The Steinway sound
#20751 11/18/04 07:30 PM
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The Bs I saw last night...one was an action rebuild and one was a total rebuild. The rebuilder said his experience is that Steinways come out of the factory in pretty rough condition, in terms of the action and the voicing, and many dealers do little or no prep.

What Grotriman says is very interesting to me -- strong first partial in the treble and not much above that. That may explain the "bite" I hear in a Steinway treble.


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20752 11/18/04 08:03 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by Grotriman:
1) amazing how poorly regulated (blocking etc) these pianos are.

Just wondering if you could elaborate a little further - I am not sure what this means (the blocking part). What specifically did you encounter that left you with the impression of poor regulation? Just wanting to get better educated, this is not a barbed question.

- Sarah

Re: The Steinway sound
#20753 11/18/04 08:25 PM
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Aaron:

My S&S hasn't arrived yet (it's almost ready, though laugh ) and I've had the opportunity of hearing a Steinway in a home setting on only one occasion, so I can't contribute anything intelligent about how a Steinway may sound in a home environment.

I have been wondering how LOUD my piano will be in my livingroom. Anyone with similar concerns and liking the S&S sound, do try to seek out a Bohemia piano. FWIW, of all the pianos I played, I think Bohemias are closest to Steinway in terms of sweetness of tone. They may therefore be just the ticket for anyone who prefers a quieter instrument. Worth checking out, if you can!

Aaron, hopefully I'll remember to post back here to let you know what I think on this subject - *once my "new" piano arrives* laugh

Also, just to let you know. I'll be starting a new thread soon about someone's impression's of the Steinway sound. It's not specifically about how Steinways sound in a home environment, but you may find this gentleman's comments interesting, never-the-less. Watch for it - I'll probably post it Monday.

Jeanne W

P.S. Oooh - I'm starting to get excited. It's down to the wire now... My piano is just about ready to come home!!! I can't wait! My palms are getting sweaty and my heart is starting to race. laugh laugh laugh


Music is about the heart and so should a piano be about the heart. - Pique

1920 Steinway A3
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Re: The Steinway sound
#20754 11/18/04 08:35 PM
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It seems I'm falling on the other side of the coin... if my interpretation of "bite" is similar to yours.

I much prefer a piano that has "bite," as long as I can control the "bite." I'm less attracted to (the smaller than 7.5 ft) August Försters and Bösendorfers and Pleyels precisely because I find it very difficult to get a good "bite" out of them even when I really wanted the "bite."

It's understood that we're exposed to different samples of Steinway and M&H pianos, but from what I've sampled, I deem the M&H as having even more "bite" than Steinway, and comparing the top two favorite Steinway B's and the top two favorite M&H BB's that I can remember, I found the Steinway "bite" more controllable than the M&H "bite."

I agree very much with Jens that the German pianos from different makers all sound very different -- at least to me.

As for trying out a room full of Steinway B's in NY Steinway Hall, well, I did that too. I found 4 out of 11 of their new B's quite presentable, and 2 out of 11 downright exceptional. May be I have not visited as many big showrooms, but it's very rare that I find a showroom with even three 7-footers of the same model, much less eleven; and for that, I found it amazing that I could play four very presentable 7-footers of the same model. In most other places, I'd find one or two 7-footers per brand, and there they could all be presentable or they could all be disappointing. Sure there are under prepared pianos in NYC Steinway Hall, but there are TONS of pianos there! I seriously doubt any piano retail outfit with even half the size of NY Steinway Hall's inventory can keep all the pianos well-prepared all the time. How many other showrooms are there where one can walk in and expect to find FOUR 7-footers of the same model and find all of them to be in good, presentable condition?

Also, I usually do not find the bass of Steinways lacking at all, new or used -- if anything, the most common complain my friends and I have against the 1960 Steinway B we used in our joint recitals was that the bass tended to over-power the treble (and it shows in the recordings from our earlier recitals). I did not find the four presentable new B's from Steinway Hall lack anything in the bass either. Their bass/treble balance was quite favorably compared to the new M&H BB's I've played.

I do agree with many of you that Steinways lack consistency. But, hey, one guy's inconsistency is the other guy's "character" or "soul" of the piano. It's easy to find inconsistency when you have eleven 7-footers of the same model in one room, less so you only get to play one or two pianos of the same model in one room. I think Yamaha C-series are great because they're very consistent and predictable (and probably much better prepared by the factory, wholly conceived and executed and all), but the other guy would say they're not great because they have no "soul." Furthermore, Steinway's ability to be so vastly "inconsistent" and yet manage to establish the "Steinway sound" has got to count for something, right? wink

Re: The Steinway sound
#20755 11/18/04 11:56 PM
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Very well put, Axtemus, as always! This is exactly what I'm talking about...these personal preferences and trying to define them. I'm glad the word "bite" resonated (no pun intended) with you and that you identifiy it as a desirable trait, as I believe many Steinway owners do.

I also tend to find the bass on most Steinways sometimes overpowering and hard to articulate (like a Mahlerian or Brucknerian orchestra), and my interpretation of the biting treble is to penetrate the thick base, which it does quite well, like a triangle or piccolo or a bank of trumpets or a xylaphone (or Birget Nillsen). The equivalent instrument comparisons on a German instrument would be the celeste or glockenspeil, a French horn or a tenor sax or vibraphone (or Kirsten Flagsted). Maybe I don't have my analogies quite right, but you get the idea.

It's these personal preferences that fascinate me and make the world of pianos such a rich experience to share, and I enjoy fumbling for the words to express these similarities, differences, and preferences, iterating toward understanding and common language.


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20756 11/18/04 11:58 PM
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Oh, and Jeanne, your excitement is wonderful to behold! I can't wait to hear back once the instrument arrives!


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Re: The Steinway sound
#20757 11/19/04 05:01 AM
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I also wondered when I heard the comment about Steinway bass not being powerful enough! Only in a few Steinways did I find this - all of the others I played have wonderful, robust bass.

Something to consider. The European pianos with cleaner, clearer notes - The bass may be able to articulate the individual notes to a greater degree when playing chords, etc. The experience of hearing a chord played on those types of instruments can be much different than hearing the same combination of notes played on a piano with more harmonics such as a Steinway.

A chord played in the bass can sound out more as individual notes being played together or, alternatively, as one mass, one lump of sound with the individual pitch of each note in the chord blending together.

Maybe if I say it this way it'll be easier to understand:

On a piano with a cleaner tonal quality (brighter voicing also helps) a 3 note chord being played in the bass may be perceived/heard as 3 INDIVIDUAL NOTES BEING PLAYED TOGETHER. The piano is better able to articulate each individual note.

On a piano with a muddier or "dirtier"* tonal quality, the same 3 note chord may be perceived/heard instead as ONE SINGLE SOLID NOTE - ONE LUMP OF SOUND.

* "Dirty" tone? Ooh, I don't like that terminology! eek

=================================================
Posted by Axtremus:

"I do agree with many of you that Steinways lack consistency. But, hey, one guy's inconsistency is the other guy's "character" or "soul" of the piano."
===============================================

The beauty in the differing character of pianos becomes clear when you find a piano whose soul sings in harmony with yours. smile

Jeanne W

P.S. Aaron: smile


Music is about the heart and so should a piano be about the heart. - Pique

1920 Steinway A3
My Piano Delivery Thread:
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Re: The Steinway sound
#20758 11/19/04 09:07 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Grotriman:

I just get the feeling that they are making a piano according to a template, but that nobody is really seeing that the whole system is functioning correctly together.
How about a whole new department to address that?
More consultants should help too. wink

Re: The Steinway sound
#20759 11/19/04 09:24 AM
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Since the federal government wants to run everything anyway, W should appointment an official piano listener Zsar type. If that person likes the sound of the piano, it is decreed good. If not then it is decreed bad. The listening Zsar's opinion is the only one that counts.

Since wood makes up a large potion of the best regarded pianos, it is not possible for any line of pianos to sound alike. They can be tuned and voiced to come close but that's it. Some well regarded pianos pride themselves on sounding romantic. NY and Hamburg S&S's are said to have a different sound. At Steinway Hall, two well prepped S&s can sound quite different, but one or both can be good, great or bad depending on the listener. That's the joy.

One person's muddy is another person's visceral emotion. Just like high-end audiophiles will argue all day long about good, bad or different, so will those who love the real thing.

Re: The Steinway sound
#20760 11/19/04 09:47 AM
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My experience is more in line with Axtremus and Jeanne. I found a few examples at Steinway hall performed very well, I thought. I do think its the B that lacks continuity, relative to the A's, but I would also say its tenor has a lot of character, IMO. I do also think B's lack "resonant" power relative to many same sized euros, like a Fazioli whose tone rolls around like a smoothie. Its not limited to the bass. OTOH, the mid-section and treble do cut, or "bite", in a unique penitrating way that can be very satisfying when you've found the power in your arms to pull it out.

I still think with S&S one must choose their voicing poison with regard to doing it evenly and being left with a bass that, relative to the euros (bechstein really stands out in my mind) is quite arguably muddy, or trying to overcome the mud by overpowering the voice. In either cass, the bass isn't an area where I'd call Steinway tone particularly complex.

I sometimes wonder if Sitka spruce delivers the muddiness I hear, as well as the "bite". Dunno.

Chris


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