Shigeru KawaiThis is a very interesting piano. To those who do not know what this piano is all about, one can easily make the same mistake as I first did by lumping these in with the mass produced Kawais. I have serviced what seems like thousands of Yamahas and Kawais throughout my career, and I have been consistent in my opinion that both Yamaha and Kawai are good utilitarian instruments that deliver good bang for the buck. In the past ten years, however, my preference has shifted towards Kawai in terms of better design innovation, serviceability, musicality and overall value compared to Yamaha, for both grands and uprights, but especially in the grands. It has also been my experience that for institutional use, as in university music programs, conservatories and music schools where pianos can be worked to death and even abused, it has been Kawais that seem to always come out on top. Having said that, I would never ever recommend a mass-produced Kawai as something that could be classified as anywhere near the "best". However, the Shigeru is a completely different beast. When I first heard about the piano, I was very sceptical. That has changed.
From what I understand, Shigeru Kawai, the son of Koichi Kawai (the founder), kept alive his father's original dream, which was to one day build the finest piano in the world. Shigeru, well known in our industry for his piano engineering prowess, started preparing for this instrument back in the early 70's. The story goes something like this. Shigeru realized that his piano designs (scales) were technologically innovative and advanced enough to realize his father's dream; what was further required to complete the task was the acquisition of very fine materials and world-class craftsmen. He envisioned a piano that would have limited production of 200-300 per year maximum, built by a handful of very elite piano craftsman, using the finest materials, and keeping production costs down by sharing resources with the mass production factory that was already in place. This would allow him to build a few select instruments that would go far beyond what the Japanese had heretofore produced, without the cost being out of reach of most institutions and end users (in other words, priced below or similar to a New York Steinway).
He started stockpiling high-altitude, slow-growing Ezo spruce and cured the soundboards in open-air racks from three to ten years depending on the model. To my knowledge, curing soundboards more than two years is extremely rare, and simply financially unfeasible for most companies who depend solely on a high-end product. If these production differences are true, which I have heard from many different credible sources, Kawai can build a high-end, elite piano by sharing fixed costs with their mass production facilities and go overboard with craftsmanship and materials, keeping the quality extremely high, but the price lower for the end user; quite a brilliant concept. The hammers are made completely by hand requiring no hardening compounds or chemical treatment. The strings are hand wound, and the bridges completely notched by hand. Shigeru also prepared a very elite team of artisans over two decades that would eventually end up solely dedicating all of their time to building these instruments one by one.
Whether this story is part romance, or is completely accurate, one thing is for sure; these are truly wonderful pianos. I have worked on several and each time I found myself becoming more and more enamoured and impressed. I have witnessed first hand the favourable and sometimes surprised reaction from several great pianists who have played the Shigeru and have realized for themselves what an excellent piano this is. The tone is not unlike a Hamburg Steinway in terms of its clarity and harmonic richness, but with superb power and projection. The construction is very robust, I'm sure due to the fact that Kawai has been exporting pianos to this continent for decades. They have the North American export specifications down to a complete science.
The last thing is the action. Like so many other technicians, I was always quite gun-shy about recommending composite materials in the action. The jury is in and it has been proven in the field for over 30 years, and by credible detailed scientific studies, that certain composites in non-speaking parts of the action are superior in terms of enhancing responsiveness (musicality) and longevity (durability). If you are interested in this particular issue, see Piano Action Parts: Wood vs. Plastic in the Piano Materials and Structure section of this website.
The Millennium III action, as they call it is, in my opinion, without hyperbole or overstatement, the most significant piano improvement during my lifetime. I have never worked on any instrument by any other manufacturer (other than possibly Fazioli), that I feel can provide more responsiveness than this action. This seems to be the most consistent feedback I get from artists who have played these. Kawai has obviously invested their entire reputation and credibility over the past three decades on designing actions that are more stable under climatic fluctuations (humidity, dryness), require less maintenance, and last longer. This new design, which I think was introduced on the Shigerus, uses a very sophisticated carbon fibre infusion in the action parts that provide less density with more strength. The pianissimo and repetition is simply amazing. Although I have criticized Kawai for years along with many of my colleagues for using cheap materials in their actions, I realize now that Kawai over the last 30 or so years have stuck to their guns, put up with scathing criticism, some warranted, but most not, from people like me, and spent countless millions of dollars trying to improve the piano design in any way that would make a more stable, more musical, more reliable piano. My call is that once the great pianists and technicians really understand what Shigeru Kawai have accomplished, it will become the new standard and anything less will be considered outdated technology.
If you are looking for a truly elite, innovative and without question world class concert quality instrument, at an incredibly reasonable price, the Shigeru Kawai is in my opinion a piano that should be seriously considered.