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Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls 2
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etude in G flat major Op. 10
Played by Tosta di Benici
Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp minor Op. 15 No. 2
Played by Camille Saint-Saëns
Scherzo in B flat minor Op. 31 No. 2
Played by Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler
Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53
Played by Ignacy Paderewski
Played by Gertrude Peppercorn
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Rondo Capriccioso in E major Op. 14
Played by Josef Hofmann
Moritz MOSKOWSKI (1854-1925)

Walzer Op. 17 No. 3
Played by Lillian Seckendorf Popper
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Salome – Dance of the Seven Veils
Played by Richard Strauss
Carl Maria WEBER (1786-1826)

Rondo Brillante in E flat major Op. 62
Played by Raoul Pugno
Franz LISZT (1813-1886)

Grand Concert Etude in D flat major No. 3 Sospiro
Played by Frederic Lamond
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (cadenza; H. Vetter)
Played by Johanna Lohr
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Butterfly Op. 43 No. 1
Played by Edvard Grieg
Recorded on Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls recorded between 1905 and c 1915
NAXOS 8.110678 [69.42]


I don’t think there’s much I can usefully add to the comments I made in the opening volume of this series in which I laid out the technical complexities of the Welte-Mignon system and its inherent limitations as a recording mechanism. The second volume, to which nevertheless I looked forward, brings us Grieg and Strauss as well as pianistic titans such as Pugno and Hofmann, a Liszt and Beethoven specialist in Lamond and examples of musicians, famed in their day, who never made commercial disc recordings, such as Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler. For the purposes of this review I’d specifically direct interested readers to a review I wrote of her Piano Rolls, a double CD set on Pierian, for extended comments on her performances and the system utilised to reproduce her rolls.

Again I should state my own view, which is that these rolls should certainly be utilised by inquisitive listeners, most particularly in the case of those pianists who never made disc or cylinder recordings. Otherwise exceptional caution should be maintained in respect of rhythmic and tonal matters and questions of touch and depth of tone – some of the essences of pianism. How else to account for Hofmann’s undated Freiburg-recorded Mendelssohn, a piece he recorded commercially. If one takes the Bell Telephone Hour live performance in 1944, admittedly much later than this roll and well into his decline, we can nevertheless hear tremendous subtlety of tonal gradation and expressive phrasing. At a similar tempo – almost identical in fact and arguing at least for consistency of interpretation by Hofmann – the piano roll is rhythmically stiff, lacking in colour and subtlety and tonally and emotively dead. Was Saint-Saëns so capricious in his playing of Chopin’s F sharp minor Nocturne? We have his G & Ts and I would counsel anyone astonished by this performance to take refuge in those instead. Lamond made a number of recordings of Un Sospiro and we know that he was an eventfully changeable artist in this work, taking between 3.56 to play it in 1921 to 4.35 in 1925 (I’ve not heard the 1941 Decca) – with the 1925 and 1936 performances clocking in slightly under that last timing. It’s not just that the roll lasts 5.24 – he had more time to play it on a roll, after all - so much as it sounds utterly mechanical and soulless. In the case of Bloomfield Zeisler one can make a comparison between this transfer and that by Pierian. Naxos’s Steinway-Welte Reproducing Piano is very clear and recorded with immediacy and brightness, with the drawback that the action is noisy. Pierian use a Feurich Welte piano in a domestic setting – more veiled and cloaked, not unattractively, though the piano is sometimes out of tune. I should add that the rolls have been transferred at a slightly different speed as well – there’s twenty seconds difference and this does beg a question all of its own.

In the end the unrelieved brightness and tonal homogeneity of these performances becomes wearying. The inherent rhythmic problems and tonal limitations and post editing complexities argue for, as I said, a high degree of caution. For those performers who never recorded these are still valuable tools. For others these are adjuncts, no more, to their recorded discography.

Jonathan Woolf



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