Richard C. Morais, 09.15.03 ( Forbes.com)
Today's best value in grand pianos owes its origins to Uncle Joe.
Russian-born violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky and his American wife, Susan Roberts, a light soprano, demand the best. He owns and plays, for example, a 1717 Stradivarius worth $3 million. So a visitor to the couple's London town house might be surprised to find that the piano sitting in the living room is not a Bechstein, a Bösendorfer or a German Steinway. It's an Estonia.
Six years ago, when the couple went looking for an instrument to accompany their rehearsals at home, they were drawn immediately to the Estonia by its sound. Musicians love it, using such words as "sweet," "old-fashioned" and "romantic." What's more, the price was a bargain. "It was certainly competitive with more famous brands, which sometimes don't quite deliver what you expect," says Sitkovetsky. "This was a very good working piano."
The list price for the 9-foot Estonia Concert Grand is $65,000, roughly half the price of a comparable Steinway. Prices for the 5-foot-6 Estonia Studio Grand and the more popular 6-foot-3 Parlor Grand range from $21,402 to $31,206. (Piano dealerships typically offer customers a 10% discount off the suggested retail price.) Finishes come in everything from ebony to African bubinga.
For testimonials, Estonia can call upon such artists as Grammy-nominated pianist Marc-André Hamlin, who plays on a Parlor Grand Estonia. Neeme Järvi, chief conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, calls the instruments "one of the best-kept secrets in piano-making today." Irving Faust of Faust Harrison, a New York dealer and restorer of vintage American Steinways, Mason &Hamlins and Estonias, says of the latter, "This great piano is giving pause to a lot of other manufacturers, because they'll have to meet its standard if they want to survive."
Until very recently, however, it was the Estonia that was fighting for survival. The piano's origins go back to 1940, when Estonia (the country) was forcibly annexed by Russia. The citizenry of the beleaguered Baltic state, coerced into giving Stalin a gift, sent him a grand piano. Estonia's national tradition of fine piano-making spans 200 years.
Stalin's instrument was made by Ernst Hiis, an Estonian craftsman trained by Steinway in Hamburg. The tyrant so liked the piano that Soviet commissars decided in 1950 that Hiis should be given a factory, in which all other Estonian piano workshops were to be consolidated. From then on, Hiis enjoyed a near-monopoly on supplying the Soviet empire with newly branded "Estonia" grands, producing as many as 475 of them a year.
When Hiis died in 1964 the quality of the pianos went into a long period of decline. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall the factory was bought by its 130 employees, and by 1994 production had fallen to only 49 instruments a year.
Jump to New York, where in 1994 a gifted Estonian pianist, Indrek Laul, was getting his doctorate at Juilliard. Laul discovered that the piano of his homeland didn't have a U.S. representative. He persuaded a distributor to take it on. Henceforth, whenever Laul performed or cut a record he spent his pay buying out the stockholders of the Estonia factory, until he himself owned it outright.
Laul stayed on in New York to build the brand. Back in Estonia his choirmaster father has taken charge of quality control at the factory. And Laul's mother tests every piano before it gets shipped.
The Lauls have reinvested all profits in the business and have systematically redesigned and improved the piano. The mechanical innards, for example, are now made by Germany's Renner, the maker of the world's best hammerheads, shanks and flanges; the soundboard is made from Siberian white spruce. The resulting sound is attractively retro. "Most other piano companies go for bright, brilliant tones sounding through the orchestra," says Laul, 35. "We wanted to offer a piano that blended better with the orchestra and that when you sat down and played solo, you really enjoyed for its deep and mellow sound."
Payoff? Production has climbed to 380 pianos a year, and Laul says he wants to add dealers in states where the Estonia is not yet represented, such as Florida. He can't do it right away, though, because demand has outstripped production. Anyone wanting to test-drive Stalin's piano should contact Laul's office (www.estoniapiano.com) for the name of a local dealer. Faust in New York City has a special pitch: Buy from him, and he'll buy back your Estonia anytime in the next five years for what you paid, provided you apply the money to a more expensive piano. He's betting the Estonia will only appreciate with time.