September 3, 2003
A Fine Way to Treet...an Estonia
Forbes Global Life
by Richard C. Morais
Bright-and-brash-sounding pianos might be the norm, but the still little-known Estonia piano is making sweet noise with Old World parlor grands.
The Russian-born Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a world-class violinist, and his American wife, the light soprano Susan Roberts, are consummate classical musicians who demand the best. Sitkovetsky performs on his very own Stradivarius, for example, an instrument built in 1717 and worth over $3 million. But that's precisely why a visitor to their London town house can't help noticing the grand piano sitting in their living room is no German Steinway, Bechstein or Bösendorfer. It's an Estonia.
Six years ago Sitkovetsky and his wife walked into a top London piano dealership looking for a piano that could accompany their rehearsals at home. "There was this piano that sounded good," recalls Sitkovetsky, immediately struck by the Estonia's tone, "and the price was certainly competitive to the more famous brands, which sometimes don't quite deliver what you expect. This is a very good working piano."
Since then other music industry insiders--such as Grammy nominee Marc-André Hamlin--have picked up on word-of-mouth and discovered the high-quality piano. Says Neeme Järvi, chief conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: "It is one of the best-kept secrets in piano making today."
The cognoscenti are not recognizing the handcrafted Estonia--named after the republic on the Baltic--just for its uniquely lush and romantic tone, but also for its exceptionally good value. The official U.S. list prices of the 167cm Estonia Studio Grand and the more popular 190cm Estonia Parlor Grand range from $21,402 to $31,206 and they come in everything from ebony to African bubinga. The 273cm Estonia Concert Grand, weighing 500 kilograms, retails for $65,000. (Piano dealerships typically offer customers 10% discounts on the suggested retail price.)
How do these prices compare? "An Estonia Concert Grand can be had for roughly half the price of a Steinway Concert Grand," says Irving Faust of Faust Harrison, a New York dealer and restorer of "vintage" American Steinway, Mason & Hamlin and Estonia pianos. "This great piano is giving pause to a lot of other manufacturers, because they'll have to meet the standard of the Estonia if they want to survive."
Piano making in Estonia stretches back 200 years, but the company itself was founded in 1893 by Ernst Hiis, an Estonian master craftsman trained at Steinway-Hamburg. When the Soviets annexed the Baltic state in 1940, the conquered country was forced to give Joseph Stalin a gift, and the nation of 1.5 million gave a Hiis-made piano. Stalin apparently loved the handmade grand, and the Soviet commissars made sure Hiis was given a factory to consolidate all other Estonian piano workshops under him and a near-monopoly to supply the empire with grand pianos newly branded with the Estonia name.
Production peaked under the Soviets at 475 grand pianos a year, but, isolated from new techniques, the Estonia factory inevitably fell into decline after Hiis' passing. The Berlin Wall fell, Estonia regained its national independence, and in 1993 the factory's 130 employees took the piano maker private.
Jump now to New York, where a gifted Estonian pianist, Indrek Laul, was getting his doctorate at the Juilliard School. Laul contacted the piano maker of his homeland and discovered they didn't have U.S. representation and that annual production was falling, to just 49 grand pianos in 1994. The young musician found a distributor to spearhead Estonia's American business, and from then on, whenever Laul cut a record or performed, he spent his pay buying out Estonia stockholders, until he owned the piano maker outright.
Laul, from a well-known musical family in Estonia, stayed in New York to build the brand in the U.S. but put his choirmaster father in charge of quality control at the Tallinn factory. His mother, meanwhile, was enlisted to test-run every piano before it was put in containers bound for the U.S. and other markets. "Most other piano companies went for bright, brilliant tones sounding through the orchestra," says Laul. "We wanted to offer something different, something that when you sat down and played, you really enjoyed."
That's why the Lauls have reinvested all their profits into the business, systematically redesigning, rebuilding and improving a piano that a decade ago was merely middling. The mechanical innards, for example, are now made by Germany's Renner, the world's best maker of hammerheads, shanks and flanges; the soundboard is made from Siberian white spruce and treated with a proprietary technique at the Tallinn factory. Such technical details create the piano's old-fashioned tone, which is frequently described as romantic, sweet and mellow. "We compare it to old winemaking," says Laul. "A very good-tasting wine has its unique characteristics, and so does a piano."
The payoff? Production is back up, to 380 pianos a year, and Laul, 35, says he'd like to add more high-end dealers in places like Florida, where the Estonia is not yet represented. But he can't do so for the foreseeable future, because demand from his existing U.S. dealership is outstripping the Tallinn factories' production. If you want to stroke one yourself, go to "contact" on www.estoniapiano.com, and Laul's office will let you know where the nearest dealership is, anywhere in the world.
But be prepared to haggle. Irving Faust in New York City is offering a sweet deal: If you buy an Estonia from his 58th Street store and want to trade up within five years, he'll buy it back at cost. That's because Faust is betting the still modestly priced Estonia will join the very few piano brands worldwide that appreciate, not depreciate, over time. "These are," says Faust, "investment-grade pianos." James Cameron, the principal at Estonia's U.K. distributor, the Edinburgh Piano Co., says British dealerships will probably also (but unofficially) take back the Estonia at cost if the buyer is spending considerably more on a grander Estonia or other more expensive piano.