Taking on the competition 

the Hailun experience

A recent trip to Malaysia told me little I didn't already know about Yamaha and Kawai pianos. None of the retail or teaching establishments I visited had Steinways, nor any of the prestige European marques, on account, I was told, of their unrealistic cost. In one lurked an old yellow-ivoried Petrof concert grand; in another an English Knight upright that had seen better days. The 'German Scale Design', Renner-type action Wagner instruments in the showrooms of Wagner Piano Sdn Bhd, formerly the Wagner Piano Company established in Kuala Lumpur in 1951, were another story. Here I found attractively designed uprights, with a balanced tone quality, reliable mechanics, and decent finish – as a playing experience preferable in many ways to the current Japanese and Korean competition. In the short-term, at least, they struck me as serviceable work-horses, holding their tuning well in a variety of circumstances, poetic and percussive, with a musicality that commanded attention. 

Chen Hailun                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Stephen Paulello

Originally German, then Malaysian, Wagner pianos have since 2004 been manufactured by the Chinese company Hailun – their version goes by the name 'H Wagner'; the European model, produced by Petrof in the Czech Republic, is branded merely 'Wagner'. Chen Hailun established his piano parts business in 1986. Deciding to take on the instrument market in 2001, he released his first uprights in 2003 and his first grands two years later. Judging from their marketing publicity, the company's philosophy is brief and to the point - bring in the best Japanese technology and digital production lines, consult the best 'piano men' from America and Europe, and design us a first-class instrument. Incorporating expertise developed at Steinway, Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin and Kawai, benefitting from the input of among others Stephen Paulello in Paris (known for his own 102-key instruments), Peter Veletzky (Wendl & Lung), and George F Emerson, and claiming several new patents, their award-winning grands - formerly marketed in Europe under the Wendl & Lung name but since 2011 under the vintage Feurich logo - are undeniably impressive. (Feurich's models include the extra fourth pédale harmonique facility admired by Argerich and Boulez.) I auditioned a 218 (7 ft 2 in), designed in France by Stephen Paulello, retailing locally at around €15,000. For this give-away price, you get quality craftsmanship and a semi-concert grand of impeccable tone and sensitivity. It delivered the fast repetitions of Ravel, Liszt and Scarlatti with incisive clarity. Some Chopin waltzes, the Andante spianato, glowed with old-world warmth. The opening of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, always a test favourite of mine, showed a balanced, well-regulated action, responsive to middle-range chordal magic and purling scales. Maybe the bass end of Brahms's B flat Concerto lacked the kind of firmed-up 64-foot gravitas you find on the best Steinways and some vintage Bösendorfer Imperials – but then how many instruments possess this quality? The treble end I certainly found mellow and ringing, seductively dolcissimo, nearer a Fazioli than the harder, thinner sound of a Steinway or Yamaha. The 218 was a piano that invited me to play, willing and happy, in a peculiar way, to forgive rusty fingerings and polish up half-remembered hand positions. I like it. And I like its aesthetic appearance – black high-gloss polyester finish with the inner rim veneered in bird's eye maple. Not as sensually sleek or slim-line as the perfumed Italian Fazioli perhaps, but handsome even so.

Hailun operate a CNC-machine-equipped plant in Ningbo, Eastern China - running to 140,000 square metres with over 800 workers, producing more than 30,000 pianos annually. In 2008 they provided the HG 277 concert grand, designed by Emerson, which Lang Lang played at the Beijing Olympics. And that same year won a six-star Diapason d'Or for their 178 model (in its Wendl & Lung incarnation). Under Chinese branding, however, their instruments are still a rare sight around the world's piano heartlands. But surely not for long. I remember what a jolt it was to the piano community when Richter turned up in 70s endorsing a Yamaha. Then in the '90s the great and good started playing Faziolis. Fazioli who, what, why? In time, of course, we came to accept the inevitable - that the German marques of 1853 really were no longer the only ones… that technology, imagination and invention had caught up and were yielding viable alternatives. What had once drawn connoisseurs to Leipzig, Hamburg and Vienna, New York at a pinch, now seduced them to Sacile. A land-mass away, oriental entrepreneurs, Japanese one day, Chinese the next - less hopeful opportunists than calculating strategists - hovered, enticed and made new inroads. Each with a ruthless talent for cloning, improving and under-cutting anything on offer from the West. These days, frankly, as 'blind' listening tests have shown, one'd be hard-pushed to any longer tell the difference between the finest oriental pianos and the Western mainliners. For myself I wouldn't want to part with my old boudoir Blüthner, post-Great War. But I'd be more than happy for a lithe young Hailun 218 join her.

© Ateş Orga 2014

not to be reproduced without permission