This is a really interesting question and there is a lot to it. It’s fascinating how various cultures prefer different types of sounds. For example, have you ever noticed that Asian pianos tend to have a brighter sound than American pianos? You might have wondered if it’s because of methodology. Yes, but it also involves cultural preferences. Let’s get back to European pianos now.
I am also a French hornist and my wife is a flautist, so we have played in many orchestras and have been obsessed with listening to orchestras since childhood. If you listen to some of the great recordings by European orchestras like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or the Berlin Philharmonic, you’ll notice a very different quality of tonality when it comes to the instruments in European orchestras compared to American orchestras like the Philadelphia Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic.
Each individual instrument is different! With the French horn for example, the American sound is a big fat sound. In fact, most American French hornists play on the F side of the double horn which is three feet longer than the B-flat side. When playing higher notes, they may play on the B-flat side making it a little easier to play, but for the richer and fatter sound, they generally prefer the longer F-horn. In Europe, it’s much more popular to play pretty much on the B-flat horn for most of the notes giving a more open and clear sound with less fatness.
It’s not just French horns and flutes, but all the instruments in the orchestra have that kind of clear projecting sound, more than the fat blending sound. The same exact phenomenon is true with pianos. Listen to a Fazioli, Bosendorfer or a Bechstein and compare that to a Steinway or Mason & Hamlin. You can also compare these to some other great pianos from years past like Baldwin and Knabe and you’ll hear a real difference in the quality of the sound. As I explain to people time and time again, it’s not a question of right or wrong. Some people’s favorite color might be blue and others prefer purple. It comes down to personal preference.
What I find to be true though is that for certain styles of music, one could be more appropriate. For example, when I sit down at a great European piano that’s beautifully regulated, voiced and in tune and play a piece from the Baroque or Classical eras, a European piano can have a perfect quality of sound. The delicacy and the clarity is well suited to those periods of music. On the other hand, sometimes when you are after a massive sound; you really want an American piano for the big fatness that European pianos can lack.
I’m going to stop right here and say that I’m giving a gross generalization and for everything I’ve said there are absolutely exceptions. For example, I’ve sat down on some Bluthners that didn’t have that quality of sound that I’m describing in European pianos. They sometimes have a dark fatness that you don’t hear typically in European pianos. Baldwin still has the American sound, but some are closer to my ears to the European sound than other American pianos. For example, they aren’t quite as fat and voluptuous as the sound of a Mason Hamlin. There seems to be a lot of overlap in this and what I have offered are general observations. You also have to consider Hamburg Steinway which is afterall, a European piano!
The other thing I find is that the typical European piano can be almost like a fine sports car. You have to be careful not to hit the throttle too hard and lose control. If you put a tremendous amount of energy into a fine European piano, sometimes it’s more than necessary. You can get all the sound needed without having to exert so much energy the way you can on a great Steinway. It’s almost endless. You can just keep putting more and more into it getting different colors. Is that a good thing? Maybe, but for some people, they feel they don’t have to work as hard achieving a wide range of sound out of a great Bechstein for example.
So again, this isn’t a right or wrong issue and ultimately it comes down to two things: personal taste and the specific piano which is equally important. You can’t say that all European pianos are one-way or even that all Steinways are the same. After all, each instrument is handcrafted and they’re made with wood, and no two trees are alike. So you have to listen to each piano for what it offers. These are general guidelines that you can put in the back of your head when you’re trying pianos and see how well the specific piano you sit at meets these criteria.
I hope this has been interesting for you! Again, this is Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com Your Online Piano Store! 949-244-3729 info@LivingPianos.com