If you have heard of the almost magic sound that Sauter pianos produce, or perhaps that they are made in the Black Forest, you might be expecting the factory to look a little like this:
Well, we did see those fairytale towers when we were fortunate enough to visit the Sauter piano factory in May 2009 as the last but one piece in the fulfilment of a dream.Ê
We had had a piano for all of our married life, and it had served us well, but it was beginning to age, and we were looking for a replacement. We like a piano to produce a clear sound, enabling even moderate but keen pianists such as ourselves to make the most of subtleties of musical colour. An internet search showed that we ideally wanted a European-built piano, and that Sauter pianos had a unique sound, combining bell like clarity with great variety of colour; power without being overpowering.
Fortunately, Headingley Pianos werenÕt far away, so we brought the team to try one out. The team consists of Pauline, who plays the piano and the clarinet; Andrew, who mainly acts as clarinet accompanist, and Helen, who plays piano duets with Pauline. We put a number of pianos through their paces, and the Sauter Rondo proved to be head and shoulders above all the rest, except that for our house, we wanted something a little more traditional looking, ie the Masterclass 122 which has all the musical advantages of the Rondo, including many features often only found in grand pianos (yes, weÕd love one, but buying a bigger house isnÕt an option right now!).
It was while we were discussing the various options of the Sauter Masterclass range, that the idea of visiting the factory was mentioned. It was more than the offer of letting the children into the chocolate factory; to witness the creation of instruments producing pure living sounds from living woods and pure metals was going to be food for the senses; a wondrous experience.
Pauline and Andrew at the Sauter factory.
And so it was that Andreas Bieder, who looks after Sauter trade and individual customers in many countries, collected us from our holiday accommodation and took us to the Sauter factory in Spaichingen.
From outside, it looks very everyday, set on an industrial estate next to manufacturers of water meters and garage franchises, but as soon as you are inside the doors, the magic begins.
In the foyer
is a small collection of pianos from Sauter’s
190 year history - first a square piano of about 1850, 30 years into
Sauter history but still built before some of the better known names
had even started:
It still produces an attractive tone 150 years later.
Behind that, the little
61⁄2 octave piano by Johann Grimm,
founder of the company, who started as a carpenter and was apprenticed
to Johann Streicher, whose company was associated with Beethoven.
It will date from somewhere between 1819 and 1846
death in 1846, his nephew, Carl Sauter, took over the company
and ran it under the Sauter name it has used ever since.
The next museum piece bears Carl’s name, and the handsomeness
of the frame is as striking as any other feature:
before we move on to the present day, this piano is approximately
100 years old, and dates from the time of Carl
Sauter II, grandson
of Carl I.
The firm is still run as a family concern; Carl III retired in 1993, his son Ulrich continues the family name. This is the oldest piano manufacturer still in the hands of its founding family.
to the workshop, we first saw the wood - the most important of
the raw material from which
the pianos are made.
Cutting out the base of a grand piano.
A variety of colours, shapes and sizes of wood for different purposes.
The veneers are finely sewn together to give mirror image grain patterns. Note the Sauter name and logo.
Special woods are a feature of Sauter manufacture: this grand piano with spectacular Bubinga wood inside the lid is a special order destined for Singapore.
More special wood parts - note the
curved sections which form the ends of the keyboard case
of Rondo pianos.
All of the wood that is going to be visible
needs to be polished - several different finishes are used, and
it is then left
to dry on racks before the final hand polishing.
More important than the exterior wood, of course, is the interior, in particular the soundboard. The soundboard is more than anything else what gives Sauter pianos their special sound; more than all the other attention to details put together. All the best soundboards are made from Val de Fiemme wood, which is grown at an altitude where the speed and uniformity of growth combine to give the best resonance from the wood.
numbered guarantee stamp of the Val de Fiemme wood.
Sauter uses this wood in its top of the range instruments, the grands, the Masterclass uprights (our personal choice), and the Peter Maly special designs. I hope I have got this right, but as I understand it, most soundboards are to some extent concave in order to throw the sound out to the pianist and the listeners. Sauter’s soundboards are concave both left to right and top to bottom, so that they reflect sound like an evenly concave circular dish: that is the secret of the purity of the sound, but of course there are hundreds of other minutely calculated details, honed over 190 years, that go to make up the whole.
Special templates, tools and charts hang on the walls with minute details of each model.
The soundboard in its frame is then placed on a computer aided machine which trims the edges to within thousands of a millimetre and ensures that all the corners are exactly square.
Next it is the turn of the strings,
which are made individually using a special machine which winds
the exact amount of copper onto the basic steel string:
The strings are attached to the
cast iron frame, which is then attached to the soundboard:
And the case is then attached:
Now it is time for the action,
hammers and keys to be added - the all important link between the
fingers and the strings.
Sauter makes its own hammers. Each
set is then placed on this special tool which ensures that all
are aligned correctly up and down, left to right, top to bottom.
Renner actions combined with Sauter
made hammers stand ready to be put into a variety of upright models.
Sauter includes an extra spring mechanism, the double repetition
action’ which enables the Masterclass and other top uprights
to play repeated notes as quickly and easily as grand pianos.
Andreas Bieder, host and guide for our special day, stands by made up keyboards.
Finally, technicians give the pianos their first tuning, check that everything looks and sounds exactly right, and the pianos are then ready to be sent to their new owners.
A selection of current models in the showroom.
To round off a truly memorable day, Andreas took us to see a couple of local sights - the attractive town of Rottweil (where the dogs come from - but we didn’t see any!)
Rottweil, with its beautifully painted buildings.
And Burg Hohenzollern, the castle of the Hohenzollern family, from which the German Kaisers came, perched on the top of a hill and from where you can see across to France and Switzerland.
Burg Hohenzollern, reached by climbing several hundred steps, or on a shuttle bus. Whichever way you reach the top, the view is well worth the effort.
Now we have just a few weeks to wait for our Masterclass 122 to be finished, for it to be transported to Headlingley Pianos for final preparation, and thence to us. CanÕt wait!
Our thanks to Headingley Pianos for arranging the visit, and to Sauter, in particular to Andreas Bieder, for giving us a day we shall remember for the rest of our lives, and for their wonderful hospitality.
The parting gift was a double CD of Chopin Polonaises, played by Eugene Mursky on a Sauter grand piano. If you can get hold of, or borrow, this CD, listen to the Heroic Polonaise (Op 53 in A flat major). ItÕs not just that Eugene Mursky is a brilliant pianist with a real feeling for Chopin, which he undoubtedly is, but the clarity of especially the lower notes and in the glissandos, resulting from the pure, singing tone of the Sauter sound add a new dimension, and show exactly why these pianos are so special, and not just for pieces of that complexity, which I know is well beyond what either of us can do!
Well, the big day came at last, and the Masterclass arrived and was installed into its new home.
First impression - the mahogany finish looks really good, and just right for the surroundings.
Second impression - the sound is absolutely fantastic - everything we had hoped for and more. The bass is powerful but neither obtrusive nor overpowering, the middle range sings beautifully, and the top range is strong enough to be heard against anything that the lower notes can produce. Tomorrow is a special day, because Pauline's sister Ginny and Ginny's daughter Helen are coming to visit us, both of them experienced musicians, and they don't know the piano has been delivered!
Next day - the visitors have arrived, and we stayed up until almost midnight playing a variety of pieces familiar and unfamiliar. A wonderful experience, which we plan to repeat over and over again.
Thank you to everyone who had a part in the production and delivery of this wonderful instrument!
Thank you, too, to Helen Holland for the final three photos.