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Free-Market Piano Concerto

By Natalya Alyakrinskaya The Moscow News

In Germany, a piano maker has become Businessman of the Year. In Russia, piano factories are closing one after another

If Russia was to hold a Businessman of the Year contest, the shortlist would certainly include candidates exclusively from the oil or gas industry, or at least from the beer industry. In Germany, the title Best Businessman of the Year 2004 went to Christian BLUTHNER-HAESSLER, head of the Bluthner piano factory and chairman of the board of the Union of German Piano Makers. Having captured, first, the German and then the European market, the 39-year old entrepreneur is now moving into Russia. He's got all it takes for the expansion. In a country that gave the world Tchaikovsky and Rakhmaninov, Bluthner does not have any serious competition: Russia's musical instrument industry is on the verge of disappearing from the scene.

The Keyboard Master

He swears he did not expect this. He quietly ran his family business, and then suddenly he was awarded the Businessman of the Year title. Yet only yesterday, Christian, far from holding this title, was not even a businessman, but a successful cancer surgeon. His CV leaves a somewhat strange impression: He graduated from the Gottingen University School of Medicine, took a correspondence course in economics, performed operations in the UK and Switzerland, wrote academic papers, and then suddenly, in 1996, became the head of the Bluthner factory.

Asked by this reporter if he has sacrificed himself to family tradition, Christian raises his eyes meaningfully, smiles, and says: "If I had two lives, I would be a doctor and company president. But when the time came to make a decision, within 24 hours, I chose the second." You can understand him: He grew up in a home where in the evening everyone talked about music and renowned musicians played, so not to continue the family tradition would have been tantamount to renouncing his family name. This would have been even more difficult since his name is engraved on the grand piano.

True, Christian says, come to think of it, the sounds of a grand piano can save some souls just as doctors can save some bodies. Furthermore, some of his medical skills have come in very handy in his new business. Just as in surgery, you cannot afford to make mistakes: Piano making is an entirely manual operation, a handcraft. Patience is also an indispensable requirement here: Even composer Stravinsky had to wait for half a year before, in 1918, he received the piano that he had ordered from the Bluthner Leipzig factory. The recipe for a classic Bluthner is essentially the same as it was 150 years ago: special wood from a High Alps area, seasoned for 12 years; more than 6,000 parts and components to be assembled into one instrument. But most important, a special resonance system patented back in 1878 by Julius Bluthner, the founder of the factory. It is this extra fact that enables the Bluthners to claim special status for their product amongst piano manufacturers.

Tchaikovsky as a Publicity Agent

Christian says that his great grandfather owes this know-how to Ferenc Liszt. Once, Liszt complained that strings on the pianos he played often snapped. It was then that Bluthner thought about making an instrument that would measure up to the composer's lively and vigorous temperament. Before, all grands and uprights had three strings to each note (key). If two of them snapped, the sound disappeared. Julius Bluthner decided to add an extra fourth string which gave his grand a special melodious, "romantic" sound - Bluthner's great selling claim to this day. As for Liszt, he got an opportunity to bang on the keys without fear of breaking the strings.

The legendary grand disappeared after World War II. Christian's grandmother told him that she had witnessed the factory burn down during a U.S. air raid: She saw the ceilings collapse and the burning instruments crash through the floor. The extremely valuable archive - correspondence with Liszt, Debussy, Horowitz, Bartok, and Tchaikovsky - was also destroyed by the fire. That did not prevent the Bluthners from remembering and passing on from generation to generation Tchaikovsky's words: "Bluthner is the perfection of sound." Today, in moving into the Russian market, Christian uses Tchaikovsky's comment as his principal advertising slogan. And it seems to be working very well: The doors of the capital city opened to Bluthner with amazing ease. A little hitch over the premises was straightened out by a personal meeting with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and so Christian has already opened his salon at the Moscow International House of Music with a beautiful view of the Moskva River, while Mikhail Shemyakin has presented him a collection of his pictures based on Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky ballet themes for permanent exposition in the office.

Today, Bluthner says he has fulfilled his plans with regard to Russia for several years to come. Last year he sold here about 200 grands and uprights: This is no mean achievement, considering that his grands cost between $50,000 and $150,000. Bluthner's interests span a vast geographical area - from Ussuriisk to Grozny: One of his grands was recently bought by Chechnya's Ministry of Culture. And in Russia there is no competition, no one is breathing down his neck.


Bluthner Pianos was founded in 1853, in Leipzig, by Julius Bluthner, the son of a carpenter.

By the early 20th century, the factory became an official purveyor to the royal courts of many European countries. Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rubinstein, Liszt, Debussy, and Wagner spoke in glowing terms about Bluthner. In 1936, Bluthner scored tremendous public interest when the famous airship Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic for the first time with a Bluthner grand on board. For reasons of weight this instrument was made of aluminum, the outside covered with parchment, and it served for the first broadcast of a piano recital from the air, which was beamed to 36 radio stations across the world. Bluthner Pianos Leipzig annually makes 500 grands and 250 uprights; its subsidiaries in various countries of the world make another 250 grands and 600 uprights a year. In all, the factory has manufactured a total of 150,000 instruments. The company grossed $60 million euros in 2004.

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