Exactly two years ago, Pianist magazine editor Erica Worth took a trip to Berlin to find out why Casio’s most recent digital piano innovation – the hybrid piano – was launched in the German capital.
It’s early September, and I’m in a large room on the top floor of Berlin’s sleek Stilwerk design centre, awaiting the unveiling of Casio’s newest digital piano. The room is full of journalists, piano dealers, Casio representatives from all over Europe and an impressive line-up of Casio executives. Kazuhiro Kashio, Casio’s President & Chief Operating Officer, a busy man whom I’d imagine only attends the most important of Casio events worldwide, is here, joined at the top table by two high-ranking executives – Hiroshi Nakamura and Hitoshi Ando. Everyone in this room is ready to discover what the Casio Celviano Grand Hybrid is all about.
So why Berlin? By way of answer, here’s one name I have yet to mention: Karl Schulze, CEO of Bechstein, who is also sat at the top table. And this is where the story comes together: Casio has developed its Celviano Grand Hybrid in collaboration with the Berlin-based piano manufacturer C. Bechstein. Exactly 35 years after the launch of its first electronic keyboard, the groundbreaking Casiotone 201, Casio seems to be in the role of the pioneer once again, this time combining its electronics savvy with the traditions of one of the top old-school German piano makers, Bechstein. The first two models of the new Celviano Grand Hybrid, that are launched here, are the GP-500BP and the GP-300BK. [The BP-400BK is the most recent model, launched after this event, in 2016.]
‘For the past 30 years we’ve wanted to penetrate the piano market,’ says Casio’s Hiroshi Nakamura of this new hybrid. ‘We want to create more music-lovers, we want to expand the music market: our goal is to help people to enjoy and play music. This is a totally new digital piano that will bring a new edge to the piano market. We want people to feel more pleasure when they play, to feel that they are playing grand piano in their own home. This is a goal that people would say is impossible. We want the perfect combination of acoustic and digital.’
Bechstein’s Karl Schulze speaks of his excitement about the collaboration between the Japanese electronics giant and the venerable German maker: ‘This is absolutely new! Sixteen months ago, some people from the Casio team came to Berlin and introduced their idea of building a much higher quality line of digital pianos. Casio knows a lot about how to build a perfect electronic product – they know to build electronic musical instruments. So we worked together. This is the first step – and it has to be step by step. The second step is that Casio is willing to continue this partnership, to develop more and better products.’
A Look Inside
What can the user expect from these new, higher quality digital piano instruments? Having played an acoustic grand most of my life, I find that as I learn about the new Celviano Grand Hybrid, there are two features that stand out for me: that the instrument includes action of a grand piano and the sound(s) of a grand piano.
To the action first: the Natural Grand Hammer Action Keyboard was co-developed using Bechstein’s acoustic mechanics and Casio’s digital expertise. The action comprises precision-made wooden keys sourced from the same high-grade Austrian Spruce as used for C. Bechstein grand pianos, incorporating real hammers that follow the same path of motion as in a concert grand, even allowing for faster note repetition than on many an acoustic. We are told that the grand piano action on the new Celviano requires no maintenance, but when I ask Schulze about this later, he says that the action might require a bit of maintenance – possibly three to five years down the line, depending on how much it has been played, and that it would only take a small adjustment of an hour or so from a technician. Schulze points out that everything is still a work in progress, and that Casio and Bechstein are working together in continuing to develop the action to the next level of standards.
Then to the grand sound, of which the new Celviano boasts three, named after three important piano-making European cities. There’s the Berlin Grand (described by Casio as having ‘a balanced, elegant sound, ideal for playing Impressionist music’), the Hamburg Grand (‘A brilliant, rich sound. Loved by pianists for its wide range of expression’) and the Vienna Grand (‘Noted for its impressive low range. Great for both soft and vigorous playing with its warm tone’). The Berlin Grand sound was created closely with C. Bechstein, while the Hamburg and Vienna were developed in house, with Casio’s expertise.
Both the pianos feature a Grand Acoustic System designed to convey every aspect of the grand piano sound such as smooth dynamics between loud and soft, lid adjustment and even that pedal sound of the felt as the damper lifts away from the strings. Six speakers have also been carefully positioned in order to faithfully emulate the grand piano as it disperses the sound from above and below the soundboard.
The instruments have lots of other intriguing features: There’s the Scene Feature (GP-500BP only), which consists of 15 pre-set types of different composers such as Chopin and Liszt, as well as music genres such as jazz and easy listening – pre-sets that combine the best optimal tones, reverberations and effects for the type of piece being played. Then there’s the Hall Simulator, which provides the experience of performing in a special venue such as church or concert hall. You can also try Concert Play, which allows you to play along with a ‘live’ orchestra, or you can chose from an array of tones (35 on the GP-500BP and 26 on the GP-300BK) and more.
Another pianist has their say
Fast forward some months later and I take one of my colleagues, the British concert pianist Lucy Parham, to a retailer in London to try out the GP-500BP. She’s as impressed as I was. She plays some luscious Brahms, some gossamer Ravel and some light Scarlatti – oh, and the opening of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. She enjoys the Berlin Grand sound the best, telling me that ‘a professional could definitely use this – it has a convincing action. I really enjoyed playing the Tchaikovsky on it. I’d definitely have it as a second instrument.’ Parham tells me that it’s the real action on this that impresses her most.
What does she think of all the other buttons and functions? ‘I haven’t explored the other sounds and functions yet. I have been focusing on how it feels compared to a real piano. You can have the full lid open, which adds more bass resonance to the sound. You can adjust the touch to make it heavier or lighter. It feels like a real piano under the fingers. I still have lots to try out.’
If the Celviano Grand Hybrid is good enough for Lucy Parham, it might well be good enough for the rest of us. Time to give it a try.