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Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls, Volume 2
CHOPIN: Étude in G flat major, Op. 10 No. 5 (Black Keys),
Played by Tosta di Benici, Freiburg – 1912
MENDELSSOHN: Rondo Capriccioso in E major, Op. 14,
Played by Josef Hofmann, Freiburg – Date Unknown
CHOPIN: Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 15, No. 2,
Played by Camille Saint-Saëns, Leipzig – 1905
CHOPIN: Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31, No. 2,
Played by Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, Freiburg – 1908
MOSZKOWSKI: Waltz, Op. 17, No. 3,
Played by Lillian Seckendorf Popper, Poughkeepsie, Date Unknown
R. STRAUSS: Dance of the Seven Veils (from Salome),
Played by Richard Strauss, Leipzig – 1906
WEBER: Rondo Brillante in E flat major, Op. 62,
Played by Raoul Pugno, Freiburg – 1907
CHOPIN: Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53,
Played by Ignacy J. Paderewski, Leipzig – 1906
LISZT: Third Grand Concert Etude in D flat major,
Frederic Lamond, Leipzig – 1905
GRIEG: Butterfly, Op. 43, No. 1,
Played by Edvard Grieg, Leipzig – 1906
CHOPIN: Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57,
Played by Gertrude Peppercorn, London – 1909
LISZT: Second Hungarian Rhapsody,
Played by Johanna Lohr, Location Unknown – 1912
Recorded August 2000 in Simi Valley, California, on a Restored Steinway-Welte Reproducing Piano
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110678 [69:42]

In my review of Volume 1 of this exceptional series, I outlined some of the issues surrounding early 20th century digital reproducing systems such as the duo art Welte-Mignon system. To quickly summarize, skeptics point to the inherent weaknesses of piano rolls including rhythmic stiffness, rounding of contours, reduced nuance and interference through the post-editing process. Essentially they feel that the system does not offer a true picture of the performer’s artistry or technique. Advocates argue that piano rolls allow us to hear legendary pianists in modern sound and make these legends more accessible to the general public.
My position is that any qualms I have about a ‘true picture’ are more than offset when I can listen to past masters as if they were in my home. From my perspective, the Welte-Mignon piano rolls represent a wonderful technical device with all the benefit going to the listener. In addition, I think it fair to say that early 20th century commercial recordings also do not provide a true indication of artistry or technique.
On to the specific matter of Volume 2. ... There is one aspect of the new volume that differs greatly from the previous one. In Volume 2, Chopin’s music tends to dominate the program with five of the twelve tracks and almost half of the total music time. This might be very good news for Chopin enthusiasts, but some listeners will prefer the greater number of composers in Volume 1.
Concerning the Chopin performances, they are very satisfying. The Berceuse, Nocturne and Étude are given sparkling interpretations. Gertrude Peppercorn is particularly outstanding in the Berceuse with her delectable rhythmic freedom and detailed lines. It is always a joy to hear Paderewski play Chopin, and his commanding performance of the Polonaise in A flat major, in the introduction, is replete with the most awesome finger-work I have ever heard. The most rewarding Chopin performance on the disc comes from Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler with an interpretation of the Scherzo in B flat minor that offers peak lyricism and an abundance of tension.
The non-Chopin pieces also receive superb performances. These works are quite light in mood, and the artists ensure that they sparkle and glow throughout. I am most taken with the Joseph Hofmann performance of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in E major; Hofmann’s poignancy and dignity give the music a stature it rarely receives in other recordings.
Actually, I would like to use the Hofmann as an example of the pros and cons of piano rolls. Hofmann recorded the Mendelssohn a few other times, and his 1918 abridged commercial reading is available on a 2-cd set that is part of the Philips Great Pianist Series. The Welte-Mignon system easily takes the prize for the better sound, as there’s really no comparison. The 1918 recording is dominated by hiss with the piano tone extremely recessed. However, there is a menace to the piano tone that is entirely lacking on the piano roll version. There is the possibility that Hofmann is responsible for the difference, but I consider it likely that the Welte-Mignon did not capture this quality.
With examples such as the above in mind, I do not advise readers to make a choice between the Welte-Mignon reproducing system and early 20th century commercial recordings. Each has its advantages, and it can be fascinating having both types of recordings and comparing them. In conclusion, I strongly recommend acquisition of Volume 2 and look forward to the treasures awaiting us with the soon to be released Volume 3.

Don Satz

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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