Grand Finale At Bösendorfer

Yamaha Outbids Brodmann to Acquire Vienna’s Signature Piano Manufacturer

News | Gabriele Ablasser | December 2007 / January 2008

Oldest Piano Manufacturer in the World still manufacturing its pianos (Photo: M. Griffindor)

When musicologists compare the famed 19th century piano virtuoso Franz Liszt to a rock star, they aren’t exaggerating. Fiery-eyed and charismatic, Liszt played with such thundering abandon, he was known to go through several instruments at a single evening’s performance. So when Viennese piano maker Ignaz Bösendorfer’s concert grands managed to survive this abuse, the sensational news traveled far and wide and made Bösendorfer pianos among the most renowned in Europe.

A hundred and fifty years and several owners later, Bösendorfer is changing hands again, in a bidding war that will probably make it the next jewel in the crown of Japanese piano manufacturer Yamaha. After a fierce battle between the huge multi-product company of everything from stereo equipment to heavy bikes – as well as concert-quality pianos – and the Viennese company Brodmann Pianos, the latter retreated in the final days of November, unable to equal the Japanese bid.

At press time, there was nobody beside the Tokyo-based corporation willing to deal with the struggling current owner, BAWAG-PSK. The Austrian bank has been trying for many months to sell Bösendorfer, as part of its strategy to focus all resources on its core banking business and restore its reputation damaged after months of scandal.

The sale to Yamaha is seen by critics as a defeat of sorts for Austria, the loss of a cultural icon that has long symbolized the country’s deep commitment to and identification with the arts. The decision, in fact, came as a surprise to many. It had looked until recently as if it would be a homecoming of sorts, as a purchase by Brodmann would have meant a return to the company that had given it birth nearly two centuries ago.

The L. Bösendorfer Klavierfabrik was founded in 1828 by Ignaz Bösendorfer, who incidentally had been apprenticed to Joseph Brodmann, one of the then leading pianoforte makers, at the age of 19.

His pianos soon became known for their unique sound and extreme durability and resistance, even withholding the powerful playing style of the young Franz Liszt, known for ruining many an instrument. In 1830, the title of Imperial and Royal Court and Chamber Piano Manufacturer was conferred to Ignaz Bösendorfer, an honor which he was the first to enjoy.

Due to a lack of heirs, the second generation of the Bösendorfer family sold the company to family friend, Carl Hutterstrasser, in 1909, whose sons sold it to US-based Kimball International after the business had suffered severe damage during the two World Wars. BAWAG purchased the piano manufacturer in 2002 at the request of the then-Federal Chancellor of Austria, Wolfgang Schüssel – himself a pianist – who wanted the company to return to its hometown of Vienna.

Brodmann should have had a distinct advantage over Yamaha that does not involve its nationality: The former Director in VP Sales & Marketing of Bösendorfer, Christian Höferl, and former Bösendorfer Sales Manager Colin Taylor currently make up the top management at Brodmann. The duo is well aware of Bösendorfer’s strengths and weaknesses, and could have provided the loss-maker with the necessary means to recapture its former glory.

But whether it’s Brodmann or Yamaha, this won’t be an easy task. Bösendorfer’s profits have steadily declined under BAWAG’s management, reportedly adding up to a 2 million Euros loss in 2006, and a residue of 8 million Euros in debt, according to the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) on Nov 16.

While the company sold about 500 pianos in 2001, Bloomberg reported on Feb. 21 that only 280 instruments had been sold in 2005, while on its website, Bösendorfer has maintained it sells about 450 pianos a year.

In comparison, Brodmann Pianos manufactures 1,200 pianos a year and its main competitor in the high-end field of grand pianos, Steinway of New York, builds about 2,500 instruments per year, and the Hamburg house of Steinway approximately 1,500.

Yamaha, however (which was actually founded as a piano and reed organ manufacturer in 1887 by Torakusu Yamaha) contributes many more instruments to top players - Sviatoslav Richter has performed on Yamaha pianos for more than 25 years, and the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was known to prefer the Japanese instrument for some of his finest recordings.

But whoever ultimately determines the fate of the Austrian piano manufacturer, the sale may be beneficial to Bösendorfer for reasons beyond profitability. Bawag has unabashedly focused on the profit margin, and certain models like the CS series have not been supported as they were not profitable enough.

Therefore, industry insiders hope both product mix and competitive placement will improve with new owners whose strategy is more faithful to Bösendorfer’s traditional heritage: offering unique instruments that are built for the buyer’s needs and focusing more on pleasing customers rather than bottom line expectations.

Staff representatives at the ailing piano manufacturer, however, have little good to say about their last owner: "We were used too much for [BAWAG’s] own purposes," Bösendorfer’s workers council announced in a statement released Nov. 22. "Other than that not much was done with the company."

In the negotiations, staff have demanded guarantees against production outsourcing abroad, stating that Bösendorfer "must be produced in Austria in order to maintain the identity of the instruments." Its grand pianos are currently manufactured in Wiener Neustadt, 50 km south of Vienna. Famous Austrian musicians such as pianist Rudolf Buchbinder have voiced their disapproval of a non-Austrian company taking over the symbol of Viennese musical culture that Bösendorfer is.

"You don’t sell the [Wiener] Sängerknaben, or the Lipizzaner abroad!" Buchbinder proclaimed to ORF on Nov. 16. In the same report, Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt was quoted saying that, "One could weep. I shiver when I think about it."

Many musicians familiar with the classical music scene in Japan have more faith that Yamaha will honor the Bösendorfer tradition, and manage the company with at least as much dedication, and perhaps more competence, than the Austrians

"Absolutely!" exclaimed Stanley Hale, a retired violist with the Vienna State Opera. "The Japanese have a reverence for Viennese music." His opinion is shared by American cellist, Cynthia Peck Kubacek, who lived in Japan for ten years, where she taught cello and played in an orchestra in Tokyo.

"For the Japanese, Austria is the center of the music world, and Vienna the most important symbolic center of classical music," Peck Kubacek said. "If you’re from Vienna, doing music in Japan, you’re the real thing."

One is left wondering whether Yamaha truly is the multi-national monster it is seen as by many Austrians. Not only does the Japanese giant seem to have the technical competence necessary to lead a historically important company such as Bösendorfer, but the heart to do so as well.

In fact, Yamaha has already proven it is more than willing to get involved in the production of Austrian instruments: It is currently the only company in the world still producing the Viennese concert oboe. This oboe model "has a different mouth piece, and has a characteristic sound," Hale explained in an interview with The Vienna Review, "and members of the Vienna Philharmonic insist on playing on it." When the Viennese company that previously made it went out of business, Yamaha was approached by the orchestra to see if they would take over production of the instrument.

"Yamaha was thrilled to death!" Hale said. "To them, it was the chance to build this very special oboe for what they think is the greatest orchestra in the world." Austrians still fear that production will be moved abroad along with the ownership, even with the existing guarantee that this will not happen.

As Bösendorfer’s workers’ council Stefan Radschiner said in a statement to the Austrian daily Die Presse on Nov. 17, "an Austrian brand and a site in Austria do not signify a guarantee of production." While many Austrians thought that a purchase by Brodmann would have been the "Austrian solution," they may not have realized that Brodmann pianos are in fact largely assembled in China, thereby lessening the advantage it has had over Yamaha in terms of prestige and authentic local production.

Nevertheless, the Deutsche Presse Agentur reported on Nov. 16 that Bösendorfer’s new owner will be required to guarantee that the pianos will continue to be made by hand, considering that craftsmanship is central to the Bösendorfer philosophy and is the company’s trademark. Bösendorfer’s workers council repeated this demand in a statement to the press released Nov. 22.

Contributions by Michael Freund 

and Dardis McNamee

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