Now owned by Yamaha, the famous Austrian piano-maker is in safe hands
How did I find myself at the Bösendorfer European Dealer Meeting in Vienna? Well, some time back, on a trip to Japan, I had a guided tour of the Yamaha grand piano factory in the company's home city, Hamamatsu.
Talking about this to some Yamaha people a few months ago, the plan was hatched to allow me to see how things were done at Bösendorfer, now owned by the Japanese company.
Which is how I found myself feeling – initially at least – a little 'fish out of water', surrounded by around a hundred of the great and the good of piano retailing, on the road south from Vienna to Wiener Neustadt, home of the Bösendorfer piano works since 1972.
Some Bösendorfer history
The company has been in existence since 1828, when it was founded by Ignaz Bösendorfer, but in recent times its history has been somewhat chequered.
Sold in 1909 to Carl Hutterstrasser, a friend of the son of the founder, it survived two world wars, but was sold again to US pianos-to-office-furniture corporation Kimball International in 1966.
In 2002 it changed hands again, this time back into Austrian ownership. It was taken under the wing of banking company BAWAG-PSK, at that time principally owned by the country's Trade Union Federation.
However, five years later sales were falling, and just 300 pianos being made a year. Financial times were tough, and new owners were again being sought. That's where Yamaha comes in, signing the deal at the end of 2007.
Now headed by Yoshichika Sakai, the company has moved all its business operations to its factory in Wiener Neustadt, but of course maintains its presence in the centre of Vienna.
New Bösendorfer Hall
The main showroom is in the city's Musikverein, where it has been since 1913, and the company is soon to open a new Bösendorfer Hall – the latest of several – in the basement of the Mozarthaus, below the museum celebrating the composer.
During our visit, we were treated to a preview of the new venue, able to seat around 70 people and due to open next month: Vienna-born pianist Veronika Trisko played a short programme of Mozart, Schubert and Chopin on the newly-installed instrument.
As an aside, apparently early Bösendorfers found favour with Liszt, who was known for being somewhat 'heavy' on his instruments. Not many of the wooden-framed pianos of the time could stand up to his playing, and literally fell apart; Bösendorfers were strong enough.
And talking of famous owners, the Japanese link with the company goes back way beyond Yamaha: in 1869 the company built a special grand piano given as a gift to the Emperor of Japan.
The Meiji Emperor apparently had his first taste of Western music when it was played on the new instrument in Tokyo. What's more, the plans for the highly ornate 'Emperor' piano still exist, and Bösendorfer can still supply replicas to order.
Play a recital before you buy
Which brings us right up to date with the recent story of a wealthy Japanese customer thinking of ordering one of the company's flagship 290 Imperial pianos: she'd sign, she said, if she could play a recital in Bösendorfer Hall, Vienna. She got her concert; the company got the order.
That thinking informs another recent Bösendorfer development: the opening of its new 'Selection Centre' at the factory, designed to have a concert hall acoustic with its wood-panelled walls, and home to a wide selection of instruments available for 'test drives'.
Completed earlier this year, and with final acoustic tuning just finished, the centre was achieved on a rather modest budget, not least because most of the work was done by the craftspeople at the factory!
A familiar name joins a familiar name
So, a new hall, a new Selection Centre – and on the business side, there was another announcement to be made: from October, the company has a new deputy managing director, Brian Kemble MBE.
With 36 years' experience in the piano industry with Kemble and Co., and 24 years working with Yamaha as the owner of Kemble, Brian is currently a piano consultant to the Japanese company, and soon will be responsible for growing the Bösendorfer brand.
Touring the factory, one gets a clear idea of the heritage of the company, and just how different things are from the Yamaha operation in Hamamatsu: as I saw during my visit there, in Japan robot carts carry instruments around the factory, playing piano music as they go to warn of their approach.
There's a mix of hand-crafting and hi-tech machinery, all used to build pianos in much greater quantities than here in Austria, and serving a world market means completed Yamaha pianos are placed in one of a series of temperature- and humidity-controlled environments to prepare them for their destinations around the world.
It starts with the wood
Back in Wiener Neustadt, the Bösendorfer factory tour starts in the lumber yard, where stacks of timber sit out in the open, seasoning and drying for up to five years.
Bösendorfer has no truck with kiln-drying wood, which it says can compromise strength and the all-important acoustic properties of the material: instead, the spruce, red and white beech, linden and alder – only chosen from trees felled in winter when the wood's humidity is lowest – is left to dry naturally.
Only after it's served its time in the lumber yard is the wood brought indoors and gently stabilised over several months – it can be up to a year – to an ideal water content of about 7-8%.
Not just wood is seasoned in this way: the cast-iron frames for the pianos, each weighing some 160kg and now sourced from an Austrian foundry, are left to 'relax' in the open air for six months before being machined, to allow tensions in the metal created in the casting process to dissipate.
Everywhere you look in the factory there's almost total hand-working, from the assembly of the wooden frames to the meticulous use of saw, chisel and knife to cut the notches in the bridges over which the strings pass.
We watched fascinated as bass strings were double-wound by hand using a special jig – and the only laser we saw in the factory – and saw veneers for piano lids assembled from a patchwork of tiny pieces of wood, each chosen and cut to work round any imperfections in the original material.
Small details are everywhere: the pre-fitting and adjustment of the metalwork, the drilling of holes in the pin-block as late as possible before the pins are inserted to create the tightest fit. Even the forming of the loops at the ends of the strings is done by hand, each operator having a unique loop-style.
And as each instrument progresses through the factory, it's accompanied by a build-sheet detailing its specification, the processes carried out and who was responsible – the design of this docket hasn't changed since the earliest days of the company, and it's still filled in by hand, rather than generated with bar-codes and computer print-outs.
Indeed, the factory is notable for the absence of all the trappings of modern production control: I didn't see one computer throughout the entire tour. Quality control is done the old-fashioned way: by hand, by eye, and by ear.
As well as its standard models, the company is has a thriving business in custom pianos, with some 20% of pianos leaving the factory being special orders.
That build-sheet system helps keep track of all these staggering variations of design, finish and model: quite apart from the classic designs forming the company's catalogue range and the customer specials, there are designer pianos, from the Swarovski-crystal encrusted to the functional, industrial-looking Porsche and Audi Design examples.
These follow a lengthy tradition: even back in the 19th Century, Ludwig Bösendorfer worked with leading architects of the time on special models.
Self-playing, by CEUS
So Bösendorfer looks set fair for its third century, and is even embracing today's technology: its CEUS recording and reproducing system can be subtly integrated into its models for practice or even self-playing duties, and is hugely popular in California, according to one of the American dealers attending.
Work is also going on to offer as an alternative the parent company's Disklavier system, already available on Yamaha's own pianos.
So what now for Bösendorfer? Well, the term 'safe pair of hands' seems particular apposite here, after years where the future looked decidedly shaky, as some connected with the company freely admit in less guarded moments.
Yamaha seems very aware of the heritage – and indeed the sound – of which it is now the custodian, and the continued existence and development of one of the world's best-known instrument brands seems assured.
Andrew Everard, Audio Editor of Gramophone since November 1999, read English at Queens' College, Cambridge a very long time ago, and was a member of the Westminster Abbey Special Choir even further back in the mists of time. He has worked on What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision, High Fidelity, Audiophile and Home Cinema magazines, as well as contributing a monthly column to Japanese title HiVi.