The story of Estonia, a piano with a long history, a Soviet champion, a near death and now a part of the American dream.

In the long tradition of piano making where great piano brands take decades to establish themselves, it has taken the once obscure Estonia Pianos just 20 years to be among top choices in the high-end grand piano market, with its rich, warm sound, at almost half the cost of a Steinway. Even pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has unofficially endorsed the piano by buying one.

The person behind the success is soft-spoken Estonian, CEO and pianist Indrek Laul. In 1994, while a doctoral student at Juilliard, Laul heard that Estonia Pianos, a brand he grew up with, was in financial trouble, and he decided to bring the piano to North America. Laul approached the company and started to invest in it, gradually buying up shares until he owned the company.

Laul traces his first Estonia piano to a used model from the early 1960s, one that was built before the death of founder Ernst Hiis, in 1964. Hiis had honed his craft at Steinway-Hamburg before forming his own company in 1903, and at the turn of the 20th century, he joined nearly 20 independent piano manufacturers in Estonia alone. However, by the end of WWII, most of the independent companies had closed and in 1950 Hiis founded Estonia Pianos. “As luck would have it, in 1951, when Stalin turned 70, Estonia presented him with Hiis’s piano as a gift, and Stalin so loved the sound, he ordered Estonia Pianos to be the sole manufacturer of concert grands for the entire Soviet Union. After Hiis’s death, the quality started to go down. As a closed society, the company couldn’t order better parts and supplies,” said Laul. When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the factory was privatized but its fortunes began to wane to the point where it was producing only 50 pianos a year.