Estonia's rise, encapsulated in a piano's history

A piano of Estonian origin, bearing the country's name, was popular in the Soviet Union but lost its prestige when the empire collapsed. A young pianist is now reviving its image.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

If anything encapsulates the post-Soviet resurrection of this tiny Baltic country, it is the grand piano company that bears its name, Estonia.

Created by Steinway-trained Estonian piano master craftsman Ernst Hiis, the Estonia piano soon caught the ear of music lover Joseph Stalin. In the 1950s, the dictator ordered Mr. Hiis to be the sole manufacturer of concert pianos for the Soviet Union. The glory Stalin brought Estonia pianos, however, was largely tied to Soviet markets and didn’t survive the Soviet collapse.

But then a young Estonian pianist vowed to buy the company and bring its pianos to their past grandeur. “We didn’t want to get into mass production,” Indrek Laul, Estonia Pianos’ owner since 2001, says. “We wanted to focus on high-quality, handcrafted grands, and we went directly to the US.”

Enlisting his parents – a famous choirmaster and a chief accompanist at the Estonian National Opera – to test the instruments, Mr. Laul has sold roughly 400 handmade grand pianos to the United States yearly, propelling Estonia to the top of the high-premium piano world, with a sound quality equivalent to those of major European brands and prices up to half those of a German Steinway, Bösendorfer, or Bechstein.

Pianomaking has a 200-year history here. “Estonia has no oil, nothing we can drill for, so music has always been our ... natural resource,” Laul says.

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