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Conlon NANCARROW (1912-1997)
Player Piano 3: Conlon Nancarrow Vol. 2
Studies 13-32
rec. 19-24 June 2005, Immanuelskirche Wuppertal. DDD


On 5 February 1996 during the Ligeti Festival at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, the stage in the Kees van Baarenzaal was occupied by a pair of player pianos, and we were treated to a fascinating live concert of works by Nancarrow and Ligeti under the gentle guidance of Jürgen Hocker. The player piano as used then and here is a conventional looking grand, but as the underneath view in the booklet of this new CD shows, the whole thing is not only the usual mass of strings and hammers, but is also filled with a substantial air pump and a mass of tubes. With the live recording I still have from Hocker’s concert, you can clearly hear the click of the switch and build up of air pressure at the beginning of each piece. In this new recording, a pump was placed outside the recording location, and the performances are as a result almost entirely mechanically silent. I was delighted to see that these recordings use instruments from Jürgen Hocker’s collection, and that the detailed but easily followed booklet notes are from his hand.

The Player Piano is now thought of as more or less an obsolete instrument, pushed aside by the more convenient or exciting media of gramophone records, radio and film. I’ve been to the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam, and know about the fascinating reproductions we can still hear, played ‘live’ by composers like Grieg and Busoni on the Welte-Mignon system. With a well prepared instrument and mechanism it can be quite unnerving, watching the keys react exactly as they were touched by long dead legends. I also remember one of those famous New Year concerts in the Concertgebouw, where an invisible Horowitz was supposed to appear on stage, his aura followed by a spotlight to a player piano. Unfortunately the instrument ‘played up’ rather than playing ball, or it might have been Chopin. A technician had to run onto the stage to fix the thing, and by the time the music started Horowitz’ aura had given up the ghost, and was already in the bar sipping lukewarm tea. Humour belongs to the player piano, as it did to Nancarrow: in all of those photos he is laughing like a drain, and the more solemn, sensitively thoughtful profile of the more youthful Conlon on the cover of these new MDG CDs is quite a surprise.

While performances and arrangements of Nancarrow’s work for live players and ensembles become increasingly frequent and more popular, recordings of his original piano rolls have been relatively elusive. I had always thought there was something weird sounding about the Wergo recordings of Nancarrow’s work for player piano (WER 6907 2), and the booklet notes in this new release tells us why. Due to technical difficulties with Nancarrow’s preferred instrument, a second one was used which had no felt on the hammers. Player piano can sound unyielding enough, especially for those of us used to the expressive qualities in our human player favourites, but compared to these new recordings the 1988 Wergo versions sound a bit like pub-piano Nancarrow. Recorded in the composer’s studio in Mexico, they also have a slightly home-made feel, whereas this new disc has a more satisfyingly concert hall acoustic: nothing which obscures any detail, but with an aura of resonance which gives the notes some extra breathing space. Apparently, the de-felted piano used on the Wergo recordings was kept by Nancarrow for certain special studies, but over the span of his entire oeuvre the thin, pingy effect, while having its own charm, can be a little wearing after a while. That is not to say that the piano used on this recording is full-fat Bösendorfer. Nancarrow’s work requires a remarkable degree of clarity, and so the hammers have been prepared with hardened felt – the results having being approved by Nancarrow from recordings made during earlier concert tours. These are the hammers used on this CD. Remarkably, this new MDG series contains the premiere recordings of a number of the Studies on an original Ampico player piano, in this instance the Study No.30 from around 1965, which, using prepared piano strings, sounds like John Cage being thrown around inside a tumble-dryer.

Nancarrow’s early career involved him in jazz music, and rhythms and harmonic inflections can sometimes be heard shooting through the earlier studies. Born in Texas in 1912, he became a political activist and fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. On his return to the States he was persona non grata as a result of this, and thus he ended up in Mexico. He worked in complete isolation, using the mechanical medium of the player piano to realise highly complex musical ideas, some of which would, even with today’s Olympic standards still be unplayable by a live performer. Study No. 21 is one of the most famous examples of this: a two part canon in which the voices are led in opposing velocities – at their quickest more than four tones per second. Studies No.24 and the incredible No. 25 are others in which the notes become breathtakingly dense, and the statistic of Nancarrow’s only being able to produce around five minutes of music in a year becomes believable, especially when you consider that he was working meticulously slowly with a hand punch, and working to measurements which can permit no error.

If you don’t know these works, then this could be just the moment to give them a try. You may be in for the shock of your life! Nancarrow’s is a remarkable, unique voice which has had its influence on composers, and who was especially admired by György Ligeti. If you like Ligeti’s ‘hobbling’ rhythms then you will certainly appreciate those of Nancarrow, Nancarrow’s studies are explorations of canon, acceleration and deceleration, velocity and the teasing manipulation of time and tempo. Often strict in their working out of counterpoint and rhythmic relationships, they can also be rhapsodic, sometimes using highly expressive and intense harmony. You might find it all a bit hard on the brain to start with, and I do admit it can be an idiom which takes some education of the ears – not because the music is unapproachable, but because the speed and intensity of the material requires a different kind of listening, a concentration to which you might not be accustomed. Dipping into a collection like this is a fair approach, but while you will inevitably be drawn to favourites after a while playing the whole thing is less of an ordeal than you might expect. More surprisingly, the numerical order which Nancarrow gave to these studies works very well in programming terms, and avoids the tedious hunting one has to do with the Wergo set.

Volume 1 contains Studies 1-12, and this new series from MDG is/will be very much the one to have. I can sense collectors and music libraries globally breathing a collective sigh of relief that we finally have a decent record of this unique body of inspired musical creation.

Dominy Clements


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