A SOUND IN­VEST­MENT

Delve be­hind the scenes at the Stein­way fac­tory in Ham­burg and it’s easy to see why the world’s most fa­mous pi­anos come at a price

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Be­hind the scenes at Stein­way’s Ham­burg pi­ano fac­tory

On an un­pre­pos­sess­ing in­dus­trial es­tate in Ham­burg, a ten-minute drive from the River Elbe, the Stein­way pi­ano fac­tory could be missed among the signs for Trans­ther­mos frozen goods, Bosch car ser­vic­ing and Junghein­rich fork­lifts. Yet it is here in Ron­den­barg that Stein­way makes its world­fa­mous grand pi­anos (an­other fac­tory in Queens, New York, makes those des­tined for the Amer­i­cas).

The se­ries of build­ings in­cludes every­thing from ware­houses, where spruce, maple, white­wood and bub­inga is dried for up to two years, to the work­shops where the strings for the pi­anos are cut. In one large room, up to 20 thin slices of maple and ma­hogany are glued to­gether and bent to form the rim of the pi­ano, us­ing tech­niques that form one of 139 patents held by the com­pany, while in an­other sound­boards are pre­pared and fit­ted. There’s even a room where a ma­chine pounds the key­board con­tin­u­ally for an hour be­fore it is tuned. A grand pi­ano built this way has 12,000 parts, and 80 per cent of the con­struc­tion is done by hand. Each el­e­ment has been re­fined over the years, and though tech­nol­ogy is in­tro­duced where it will add to the pre­ci­sion of an op­er­a­tion, the pi­ano-mak­ing process has re­mained largely un­changed for a cen­tury. It can take a year of pro­duc­tion to cre­ate one of the con­cert grands.

THE STEIN­WAY STORY

In some ways, Stein­way is typ­i­cal of the mit­tel­stand – those small and mid-sized Ger­man com­pa­nies that the world so ad­mires and is en­vi­ous of – yet in oth­ers it is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. To take one ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple: it is re­ally a US com­pany, one which moved out of fam­ily own­er­ship in the 1970s and is cur­rently the prop­erty of hedge-fund bil­lion­aire John Paul­son. To­gether with the US Stein­way, the com­pany em­ploys 1,150 peo­ple, many of whom have worked here for decades. De­spite the dif­fi­culty of learn­ing to play the pi­ano, the in­stru­ment is as pop­u­lar as ever. There­fore, thought of ex­pan­sion is in the air at the Ham­burg fac­tory, home to 310 of the em­ploy­ees, with plans for a fur­ther fa­cil­ity next door to →

al­low Stein­ways to be ren­o­vated and to ex­pand over­all pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity.

The Stein­way story be­gan in Ger­many with Henry E Stein­way (or Stein­weg as he was then) build­ing his first grand pi­ano in Seesen in the Harz moun­tains in 1836. He em­i­grated to the US and founded Stein­way & Sons in New York in 1853, and af­ter suc­cess came there he opened the Ham­burg fac­tory in 1880, first in Schanzen­strasse then, since 1927, in the present fac­tory.

The cur­rent Ham­burg lo­ca­tion pro­duces the full range of clas­sic mod­els, from the baby grand S-155 to the con­cert grand D-274 (the num­bers re­fer to the length of the pi­anos in cen­time­tres). There are also two up­right pi­anos, K-132 and V-125 (the height in cen­time­tres). The grand pi­anos run from €35,300 for the S-155 to €160,000 for the D-274. Stein­way also has two less ex­pen­sive ranges – the Boston and the Es­sex, the for­mer be­ing built in Ja­pan and the lat­ter in China, cost­ing from €5,630 for an up­right Boston through to €25,700 for a Boston grand.

Prices may be high, but for pi­anists around the world the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing a Stein­way is some­thing to be as­pired to. The chances are, if you lis­ten to a pi­ano record­ing, it’s the inim­itable Stein­way sound you are hear­ing. Ev­ery­one from Lang Lang to

Daniel Baren­boim, and, his­tor­i­cally, Horowitz to Richter played

Stein­ways.

KEYS TO SUC­CESS

A num­ber of fac­tors have con­trib­uted to Stein­way’s sta­tus as the most fa­mous pi­ano maker in the world – his­tory, mar­ket­ing and the sheer qual­ity and con­sis­tency of the prod­uct. The com­pany has al­ways made grand pi­anos, but by con­cen­trat­ing on this type of in­stru­ment, it has with­stood some of the ups and downs the rest of the in­dus­try has faced. Roll back a cen­tury and many mid­dle-class fam­i­lies owned an up­right pi­ano, while it was part of the fur­ni­ture in pubs, clubs and churches – en­ter­tain­ment cen­tred around it. As ra­dio then TV grew in pop­u­lar­ity, there was a de­cline in de­mand. Many com­pa­nies spe­cial­is­ing in the pro­duc­tion of up­rights closed or merged, but Stein­way was fo­cus­ing on an­other mar­ket, and one which has held true for more than a cen­tury – the con­cert hall and top per­form­ers. For recitals the best is needed, and the pi­anos, though they are re­mark­ably ro­bust, need re­plac­ing ev­ery few years be­cause of the wear and tear of per­for­mance and prac­tice. As one Stein­way re­tires from the stage to the con­cert halls’ prac­tice rooms, so new Stein­ways are pur­chased.

The price the pi­anos com­mand is a re­flec­tion of the work that goes into them. Although the prices are high, you can find Swiss watches that cost more in the jew­ellers of Ham­burg. The brand faces the chal­lenge of bal­anc­ing its il­lus­tri­ous his­tory and her­itage with re­main­ing up to date for a new gen­er­a­tion for per­form­ers, how­ever. This is helped through the Stein­way artists pro­gramme. Although the com­pany doesn’t pay top pi­anists to play its pi­anos, it does sup­port them by en­sur­ing they have ac­cess to the best Stein­ways avail­able and the help of spe­cial­ist con­cert tech­ni­cians (you can hear an in­ter­est­ing story about one of them – Ul­rich Ger­hartz – in a Ra­dio 4 pro­gramme called The Pi­ano Man, avail­able on the BBC iPlayer).

The chances are, if you lis­ten to a pi­ano record­ing, it’s the inim­itable Stein­way sound you are hear­ing

VERY GRAND PI­ANOS

De­spite the length of time they take to make, Stein­ways gen­er­ally aren’t built to or­der, though, of course, a care­ful eye on pre­vi­ous de­mand helps de­ter­mine how many of each model are con­structed each year. There are be­spoke op­tions for those with plenty of money to spare, how­ever. The 165th an­niver­sary is be­ing cel­e­brated with a lim­ited-edi­tion pi­ano, cost­ing €165,000 and, in ad­di­tion, there are var­i­ous fin­ishes and be­spoke el­e­ments that can be se­lected. At the other end of the scale are the matt ver­sions of the pi­anos, made for schools and in­sti­tu­tions, which come at a re­duced price; ev­i­dence that the com­pany is keen for a new gen­er­a­tion of tal­ented play­ers to know what it’s like to play a Stein­way.

It is also a clever busi­ness strat­egy. Yes, Stein­way would like pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als to be cus­tomers, but such is the longevity of the pi­anos that once some­one has bought one they are un­likely to do so again; the pi­anos will last their owner’s life­time and be­yond. The com­pany as a whole has man­u­fac­tured more than 600,000 pi­anos, all reg­is­tered in the records, yet find­ing a sec­ond-hand Stein­way is dif­fi­cult, be­cause peo­ple tend to hold onto them, hand­ing them down the gen­er­a­tions. If they do let one go, it’s of­ten to lo­cal churches or schools.

A visit to the fac­tory and con­ver­sa­tion with those who work there soon leads to tech­ni­cal de­tails that are prob­a­bly only of in­ter­est to real afi­ciona­dos – the in­ge­nu­ity of cross-string­ing, for in­stance, the du­plex scale, the sostenuto sys­tem and lam­i­nated bridges. What is re­ally im­pres­sive, how­ever, is the fi­nal touch, the “voic­ing” of the pi­ano; dif­fer­ent from tun­ing in that it is the job of the voicers (there are three of them at Ham­burg) to en­sure the pi­ano, while unique in it­self, has a con­sis­tent tone and tim­bre, with har­mony among the keys.

If you hap­pen to be in the mar­ket for a Stein­way, you can visit one of its show­rooms (or reg­is­tered re­tail­ers) around the world and choose the size and voice you pre­fer. Or sim­ply en­joy the dis­tinc­tive sound from a seat in the au­di­to­rium the next time you at­tend a recital.

A pol­ished, black Stein­way grand pi­ano

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