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Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls, Volume 1
PADEREWSKI: Minuet, Op. 14, no. 1
Ignacy Paderewski, piano, February 1906 – Leipzig
STRAUSS/SCHULZ/EVLER: The Blue Danube, Arabesque
Josef Lhevinne, piano, October 1906
SAINT-SAËNS: Rhapsodie d’Auvergne in C major, Op. 73
Camille Saint-Saëns, piano, December 1905 – Leipzig
CHOPIN: Polonaise in F sharp major, Op. 44
Josef Hofmann, piano, October 1905 – Leipzig
PAGANINI/LISZT: Paganini Etude No. 5 in E major
Egon Petri, piano, April 1905 – Leipzig
SCHUBERT/TAUSIG: Military March in D major, Op. 51, no. 1
Télémaque Lambrino, piano, March 1905 – Leipzig
GRÜNFELD: Dinner Waltz (from The Man About Town)
Alfred Grünfeld, piano, January 1905 - Leipzig
RAVEL: Gaspard de la nuit, no. 1 (Ondine)
Walter Gieseking, piano, Freiburg
HAYDN/SAINT-SAËNS: Andante from Symphony No. 94
Rudolf Ganz, piano, Freiburg
RAMEAU/GODOWSKY: Minuet in A minor
Hans Haass, piano, 1925? – Freiburg
BIZET/HOROWITZ: Virtuoso Fantasy (from Carmen)
Vladimir Horowitz, piano, March 1927 – Freiburg
GLAZUNOV: La Nuit
Rudolf Ganz, piano, Freiburg
VOGRICH: Staccato Caprice in F sharp major
Yolanda Mero, piano, October 1905 – Leipzig
Recorded in Simi Valley, California, on a restored Steinway-Welte Reproducing Piano
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110677 [68:02]

 

This is a fabulous disc on at least two levels.

First, we have the opportunity to listen to twelve legendary pianists from the early 1900s. These pianistic titans didn’t play like today’s stellar pianists. They took many risks, made their fair share of technical errors, and often deviated from the scores they played. Their performances were highly individualized but always played with the spirit and soundworld of the composer in mind.

Second, those of us who collect historical recordings are hardly enamored of the ancient sound that must be dealt with; our attraction to these old recordings is based entirely on the artistry and interpretations of a golden era. We live with the poor sound in order to hear wonderful interpretations of our favorite music.

This brings me to the Welte-Mignon piano reproducing system, a digital invention of the early 1900s that allows performances from nearly a century ago to sound as if the artists are in your home right at this moment. I can’t sufficiently emphasize the transcendent experience of hearing these legends in superb sound, because one must listen to this digital system to fully realize how groundbreaking it is.

Of course, not everyone is a big fan of Welte-Mignon. Complaints have mainly centered on the premise that the piano rolls do not exactly capture the actual performance, that nuance is sacrificed along with piano tone. However, it seems clear to me that ancient sound also does not accurately reflect piano tone or nuance. Given the two choices, I would definitely opt for the Welte-Mignon.

The program for Volume 1 of this Naxos series is on the light side, but such pianism is well worth a string of musical bonbons and arrangements. Among the many highlights, I am most taken by Ignacy Paderewski’s performance of his Minuet. He conveys the ‘elixir of life’, and his rhythmic flow and compelling use of hesitations make for the best interpretation on record.

Of course, Josef Lhevinne was no slouch, and his performance of "The Blue Danube" arrangement has an exuberance and sweep nobody has ever surpassed. Having Camille Saint-Saëns play his own music is a major treat, and Josef Hofmann gives an absolutely riveting performance of Chopin’s Polonaise with his concentrated power and slashing rhythms.

Among other feasts for the senses, the Schubert/Tausig Military March gets a rousing performance from Télémaque Lambrino, and Walter Gieseking never sounded as clean and detailed as in his Freiburg reading of Ravel’s Ondine. I also shouldn’t neglect to mention that the Horowitz performance of the Carmen Fantasy just might knock you off your chair with its tremendous voltage.

Progressing through the disc, it becomes crystal clear that each of the featured pianists was ‘born to the keyboard’. To have these captivating performances available in outstanding sound at the low Naxos price is a testimony to human enterprise and inspiration. I strongly suggest readers partake of an experience that will surely be memorable, evocative, and illuminating.

Don Satz

 



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