Music fades for Russian pianos

In land of Rachmaninoff, the best keyboards are foreign-made


MOSCOW -- The workers labor in a vast factory furnished with electrical saws and half-cut timber slabs that are part of a vanishing tradition, sanding wood to a smooth finish, drilling holes in what at first seem random shapes, then stretching long copper-and-steel wires, to finish the construction of one of Russia's cultural icons: a piano.

In the country of Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Lira plant here in the capital is the last factory mass-producing acoustic pianos in Russia. The country's oldest manufacturer, J. Bekker of St. Petersburg, founded in 1841, shut its doors in 2004 after years of financial woes. The Yartsevskaya Piano Factory, in the Smolensk region west of Moscow, went bankrupt the same year. A piano maker in Kazan, the Russian press reported, turned to coffin-making to supplement its diminishing income before going out of business.

"They all collapsed," Vladimir M. Larionov, Lira's director, says with obvious regret. "We lived through these times."

Lira produces 600 to 700 pianos a year, compared with the more than 7,000 uprights and grands it annually assembled from domestic parts during Soviet times. Its bright new showroom in northern Moscow displays a sampling of its instruments, including a model named after Tchaikovsky, a $2,000 instrument advertised as an "economy" piano for the middle class.

But the bulk of pianos for sale in Russia are better-known imports, which piano experts say typically have better sound and are of higher quality. Those instruments are bought by serious musicians and well-to-do Russians who consider a piano a desirable adornment to a spacious living room.

During the Soviet era, when schoolchildren learned to play in compulsory music classes, Russian manufacturers produced about 56,000 pianos a year. The instrument was a sign of culture, a family treasure to be passed from generation to generation, no matter whether one's son or daughter cared to play.

Lira, founded shortly before World War II as a wood-working factory that manufactured furniture and windows, entered the piano making business in 1956 thanks to a government order for 5,000 pianos. At its peak, the factory employed 1,100 workers, more than five times the work force today. Like the other dozen or more state-owned piano factories, Lira encountered hard times in the mid-1990s. The majority of its customers were public institutions, including the music schools and theaters that relied on the state for their budgets. When budgets were cut, new pianos were no longer a priority. Meanwhile, more foreign instruments, like Steinway pianos from Germany and the United States and the Kawai brand from Japan, began entering the Russian market.

Some companies hastily tried to privatize. Others tried to diversify. Lira continued to produce furniture and also began manufacturing piano components, such as keys, though it now uses keys and strings bought abroad.

Lira survived in part because of its diversification and, Larionov says, government-subsidized rent from the Moscow municipality. The factory went private in 2002, with the help of investments by a major furniture company. It now manufactures and markets dressers, sofas and armchairs at a store adjacent to its instrument showroom.

None of the pianos at the Moscow State Conservatory, which has trained many of the nation's great pianists, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, is Russian-made.

"We would rather invest in a more expensive, more serious instrument," says Yelena I. Kuznetsova, dean of the piano faculty, noting that Steinways have proven their mettle after being played by students 12 or more hours a day.

Two Steinways and a Kawai stand on the stage in the conservatory's Great Hall. By tradition, Kuznetsova says, the conservatory every four years purchases two new Steinways for the International Tchaikovsky Competition, arguably the most prestigious in the world.

Kuznetsova has been playing since she was 4. She has a German Bechstein manufactured in 1913 at home and a Soviet-era Lira at her country house.

She quietly laments that Russian piano making is a nearly lost tradition. Many of the nation's best players, she notes, got their starts decades ago on domestic instruments. And for that, she says, "We want to thank the factories."

At the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture, in Moscow, the most treasured pianos are from abroad. Nina V. Mileshina, head of the department of musical instruments, points out the Steinway once owned by the virtuoso Nikolai Medtner and a 100-year old Bechstein - its quality and sound "delicious."

All the Russian pianos on display were produced at now-defunct factories. The instruments are there "out of patriotism," says Mileshina, not because of their quality.

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