Steinways With German Accents
By JAMES BARRON
AMBURG, Germany — In 1850, when Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg left for New York and changed his name to Henry E. Steinway, four of his five sons immigrated with him.
The fifth, C. F. Theodor Steinway, stayed behind. He hated America — "that land of iniquity" with its unbearable weather and uncouth concertgoers. So when his father and brothers started a piano company in New York, Theodor, the technical genius of the family, sent his ideas for improving the instruments via trans-Atlantic mail.
He moved to New York in 1865, but went back to Germany regularly until 1880, when he went back for good. He opened the company's second plant here.
It was part laboratory, part factory. While he tinkered with new sounding boards and rims, workers manufactured pianos according to the same designs used at the factory in Astoria, Queens — instruments that, because of his innovations, gave Steinways the big, bright sound that defined the modern piano.
Steinway & Sons still makes pianos here. But they are a bit different from their American cousins. Many pianists maintain that Hamburg Steinways tend to sound lusher, warmer and somehow smaller than Steinways from New York.
So there is not one Steinway sound, but two.
When concert grand No. K0862 was being trimmed in the casemaking department of the factory in Queens in June, it took on characteristics that marked it as a New Yorker forever. What would be different if it were being made in Germany? What does the Hamburg factory do differently?
The factory looks like the one in Queens — a cluster of red-brick buildings. But the Hamburg factory — whose windows were blown out in an Allied bombing raid during World War II — today is smaller, brighter and cleaner. It also continues C. F. Theodor's laboratory tradition. Much of the precision cutting and drilling machinery installed in the Astoria plant was tried in Hamburg first.
For years, especially when Steinway was owned by CBS in the 1970's and 1980's, the company resisted acknowledging that New York Steinways and Hamburg Steinways were different. "Under the reign of CBS," said Werner Husmann, a vice president who has worked for Steinway in Hamburg for 35 years, "we had to say we're the same." Now, seven years after new owners took the company public, "at least it's allowed that we sound different," Mr. Husmann said.
There are pianists who prefer a Hamburg Steinway. The workmanship is better, they maintain. "It's like an upgraded American Steinway, and there's nothing to sneeze at in the American Steinway," said the pianist and arranger Wally Harper. Hamburg Steinways, he said, "seem to be more sensitive and have a wider range of dynamics."
But the pianist Jeffrey Siegel said the difference was more in the touch than in the sound. "I'm not so sure anymore that one can generalize about the tonal quality," he said.
Emanuel Ax said that Hamburg Steinways were once "more consistent" than New York Steinways. Now, like Mr. Siegel, he said the differences have more to do with individual instruments than with where they were made.
"My impression is the whole operation has become more connected in the last few years," Mr. Ax said. "I really like it, because from my point of view, I think we're starting to get the best of both worlds."
Alfred Brendel performs on a Hamburg Steinway in Europe and a New York Steinway in America — and sends Steinway executives handwritten critiques of both, they say. So, some Steinways are delightful and some can be disappointing, no matter which factory they come from.
An Ocean Apart, Yet Close
They may still sound different, but Steinway officials say New York Steinways and Hamburg Steinways are more similar than they have ever been. High-level managers from the Queens factory say they confer with their Hamburg counterparts more often than ever. That closeness is recent, though. The chief technician at the Hamburg factory, Gerde Fründ, has worked there since 1958. But not until four years ago did the company pay his way to Queens so he could meet his American counterparts.
Bruce A. Stevens, the president of Steinway & Sons, says he is not worried that some customers may find Hamburg Steinways superior to New York Steinways. "When people ask which is the better piano, I say, `We have the No. 1 and the No. 2,' " he said, without specifying which he considers first and which second.
Mr. Husmann added, "We are in a position to provide people with the piano they like."
Hamburg Steinways cost more in the United States than New York Steinways. A Hamburg concert grand sells for about $97,800, roughly $5,000 more than a comparable New York Steinway like No. K0862. "What we try to do is keep it on parity," said Frank M. Mazurco, Steinway's executive vice president, "because the exchange rate plays games with products like this."
Sharp Corners, or Rounded?
One difference between a New York Steinway and a Hamburg Steinway is recognizable from the outside: the shape of the arms, the part of the case at either end of the keyboard.
On a New York Steinway, the curve of the arm ends in a sharp corner — a Sheraton arm, named for Thomas Sheraton, the 18th-century furniture designer. On a Hamburg Steinway, the edge is rounded.
Once, New York Steinways had rounded arms, too. Mr. Mazurco says the New York factory switched to the Sheraton arm around 1910. "Obviously, somebody said, `Guys, furniture styles have changed, we need to adapt,' " he said. "New York adapted. In Hamburg, they said, `That's not happening in Europe.' They kept the design the way it was. And later, when the Japanese entered the market, they started with rounded arms, like Europe. It's New York that's standing unique in the architecture."
Cutting the arms gives a piano an unmistakable identity. The laminated rim of No. K0862 got its New York look on a sunny morning in June, a couple of weeks after it was wheeled out of the hot, dry room where it had spent 69 days aging so it would never pop out of shape.
The cutting was done with a machine operated by Louis Auguste, who was born near Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and arrived in this country in 1970. He was hired at Steinway five years later.
"My father was a cabinetmaker," he said after guiding the noisy, fast-moving blade around the edge of the rim. "My grandfather was a cabinetmaker. My girlfriend is a cabinetmaker. I've been doing this since I was 7."
Since late last year, his counterpart in Hamburg has been a machine. The rounded arms of Hamburg Steinways are now shaped by a robotic device that does its work alone: once the workers have moved the rim into place on a cutting table, they step outside and shut the door.
On a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks after Mr. Auguste cut the arms on No. K0862, two of his bosses stood in the Hamburg plant, watching through a plastic window and marveling at the speed and precision of the machine. "This is a more refined process," said Andrew Horbachevsky, the manufacturing director of the Queens plant. "We're pretty primitive."
Will a similar machine be coming soon to Mr. Auguste's corner of the factory? "Whether we go in with this is a question," Mr. Horbachevsky said. "But you've got to be impressed."
The arms are not the only clue that a Steinway was made in New York or Hamburg. Just inside the lid is another marker.
The Hamburg factory still uses reddish African mahogany for one layer of the rim, the layer that ends up next to the piano's sounding board and the cast iron plate that holds the strings. In New York Steinways, that last layer has long been made of maple and spray-painted black with the rest of the case. The mahogany is "a marketing question," Mr. Husmann said.
Other differences between the way No. K0862 is being made and the way Hamburg Steinways are made became clear during two days at the Hamburg plant.
The first big step in the making of a piano — bending the rim — took the same amount of time here as in Astoria: 14 minutes. But in Hamburg the job was done by three workers, plus a foreman. In Astoria, it takes six or seven, plus a foreman.
The managers of the Hamburg factory said they did not need as large a crew because, after gluing the strips of wood together, their workers load the slabs onto carts and roll them to the rim-bending machine. In Queens, the workers carry the 340-pound slabs from the gluing machine to the rim-bending device.
"You don't need those big guys carrying it around," Mr. Husmann said.
And where the Queens rim-benders use long-handled levers to shove the rim wood into place, members of the Hamburg team wheel in a machine with a hydraulic arm that did some of the work without grunting, groaning or sweating.
Are human hands better than hydraulic arms when it comes to driving wood into place? "We hear people talking," Mr. Husmann said. " `Steinway hates machines.' `Steinway loves machines.' `What is your relationship to machines?' It's simple. A machine has to provide an increase in quality. We are not the people who believe we can do everything with machines. We do 85 percent by hand."
Questions of Supply
Like the Queens factory, Hamburg has a lumberyard where wood sits, aging.
The Hamburg factory uses much of the same wood as the Queens factory — maple from the Pacific Northwest for the rims, spruce from Alaska for the sounding boards. The strips that will be glued together in Hamburg are cut, packed and shipped in Queens.
Until the 1990's, Hamburg used European beech in the rims and Bavarian spruce in the sounding boards. Both became scarce, and Steinway officials say they decided that a reliable supply mattered more than the price. The maple costs a third more than the beech did, Mr. Husmann said.
The cast-iron plates now come from the same Ohio foundry as the plates that go into New York Steinways. The German platemaker that the Hamburg factory once relied on — which also made plumbing pipes — went bankrupt, Mr. Husmann said.
Hammers and Felt
One arm is pointed, the other is curved. One inner rim is brown, the other black. Two more major differences between a New York Steinway like No. K0862 and a Hamburg Steinway are deeper inside.
One is the action — the sensitive, see-saw mechanism inside the piano that drives a hammer toward its string when a pianist hits a key. The action is as complicated as a Rube Goldberg machine, and exists to do one crucial job: translate the touch of the pianist into motion. It converts the delicateness of Debussy or the explosiveness of Shostakovich into what the audience hears.
The other difference, Steinway says, is the hammers themselves.
On a New York Steinway, the action and the hammers are made at the factory by Steinway workers. On a Hamburg Steinway, both parts are bought from subcontractors who follow Steinway's specifications. (Mr. Mazurco, the executive vice president, says the union contract that covers the New York plant does not dictate staffing levels.)
Pianists who prefer Hamburg Steinways, like Wally Harper, maintain that their action is more responsive than the action in New York Steinways. Steinway says the difference in the hammers matters more.
In Hamburg, Steinway uses hammers with hard felt, and the workers make them softer with needles and sandpaper. In New York, Steinway uses hammers with softer felt, and the workers make them harder by painting a gooey solution onto the head of each hammer. The solution, lacquer and lacquer thinners, adds strength, and that increases the volume and brightness of the sound.
"This is a process that takes longer," Mr. Husmann said. "We shape it to the right shape, voice it, listen to it."
In a soundproof room here at the Hamburg factory, Erich Lagemann spends seven hours a day sanding the tops of hammers to just the right shape. Then he slides the action into the piano, playing a few chords and then sliding it out for more work. It is more or less what Mr. Fründ, the chief technician, does if he does not like the sound or the touch after each piano has gone through seven tunings.
"The fit and finish, I think, is a little better here," he said.
He paused. He did not want that to sound like a put-down of New York Steinways or the workers who make them. The only thing that matters, he said, is the final result, the sound.
"New York is O.K.," he said, "and this is O.K."