The Great Spanish Pianists: The Original Piano Roll Recordings
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909) Serenata, from Suite Espagnola Op. 165 [4:00]; Aragonaise, from Suite Espagnole Op. 47 No. 6 [3:55]; Sevillanas, from Suite Espagnole Op. 47 No. 3 [3:54]; Tango [3:53]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916) Danzas españolas Nos. 1, 2, 5, 7, 10 [17:40]; Spanish Waltzes [10:25]; Prelude from Maria del Carmen [2:46]
Paquita SEGOVIA (1900-1965) Serenade [3:30]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) In Cuban Style [3:40]; Aragonaise [2:57]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Bolero [10:10]
Enrique Granados (his own compositions), Manuel de Falla (his own compositions), Paquita Segovia (her own composition, Albéniz suite excerpts), Guiomar Novaes (Albéniz tango), Rudolf Ganz (Ravel), piano rolls
rec. 1992 from piano rolls made 1908-1933

I have long been a casual fan of piano roll recordings – casual because I have never taken the trouble to learn in detail how exactly they work, just to admire their presentations of long-gone pianists’ interpretations in crisp modern sound. Most piano rolls offer characterful performances which seem a touch too fast, and a little bit artificial. But, to my delight, many of the tracks on The Great Spanish Pianists offer no sign of being made by piano rolls, computers or any other robotic device.

This is especially true of the rolls made by Enrique Granados, who recorded a selection of his Danzas españolas for Welte Mignon in 1908. His playing in the first danza establishes the mood with tasteful rubato and lovely playing which blends chords together like a series of church-bells on the horizon. The ending is close to being jazzy. Play this to a friend and see if they guess it is not a live pianist!

In the second dance Granados opts for mystery and the sense of a hot afternoon in the shade, where Douglas Riva, in his recent Naxos recording, plays with preciousness and fragility. Elsewhere, Granados makes an enjoyable charge through the famous No. 5 and tackles No. 10 with playfulness; in these Riva is somewhat bland. But this is not the only Granados-plays-Granados on the disc. I have long thought his Spanish Waltzes a bit of a hard slog to sit through in one listen, even the guitar performances by such greats as Julian Bream. It is certainly nice to have the composer’s own playing here, although he is hampered by a recording which is not as good as elsewhere on the disc. The first waltz features the highest registers on the piano, which here sound clinky and unattractive. The more melancholy tunes which follow fare better. His impressionistic excerpt from Maria del Carmen is subdued but attractive, too.

Manuel de Falla offers two of his own miniatures; In Cuban Style is a bit generic and forgettable, but the boisterous Aragonaise will wake you up!

The third composer-pianist is Paquita Segovia, whose Serenade sits at track 9. All of Segovia’s piano rolls were made while she was still a teenager, and thus before she wedded the guitarist Andrés Segovia; they are uniformly terrific. The Serenata by Albéniz showcases her ability to marry sensitivity to the tug of the dance, and makes a great opening to the program. His Aragonaise has her exuding Spanish charm and, in places, a cheerful daring which makes me recall the pianist’s youth. His famed Sevillanas get a classic reading, maybe a bit heavy but better than you’d expect given that the piece is misspelled on the back CD cover. Her own Serenade is wonderful enough - though more of a romp than a serenade - that I can safely say that this work by a sixteen-year-old composer is worthy of its place on this program.

Guiomar Novaes makes a brief but seductive appearance for the Albéniz tango, and the Zurich-born Rudolf Ganz is able to appear on this album of “Spanish Pianists” because he is supplying the “Bonus Track”, Ravel’s Bolero. If you are wondering how a work composed with the express intention of showing off the many colors of the symphony orchestra will sound on the piano, the answer is “underwhelming”. But luckily the answer is also “less repetitive than one might expect”, since Ganz has the tact to play with a very speedy basic tempo, and since he is mortal enough to fudge that obsessive left-hand rhythm more than once.

Pianophiles and the technologically inclined may be irritated by Dal Segno’s omission of information about when, where and for whom these rolls were made. We are told that the Granados selections are from Welte Mignon and Duo-Art, but not which are which; there is an allusion in the booklet to “two recordings of Granados improvising” which are very clearly not here; there is not even enough information to make a guess as to who made the rolls by Paquita Segovia or Rudolf (in the booklet, Rudolph) Ganz.

Another booklet grumble: it does not list Paquita Segovia’s death-date, which is also omitted on the Dal Segno website; eventually I only tracked it down with a Google search of her maiden name, Madriguera, which turned up an auction website’s sale of her autograph on a program from 1916. Moreover, the present-day recording was made in 1992 but, spoiled as I am from previous piano roll CDs, I would like to know what kind of piano was used. The piano is closely recorded in a reverberant acoustic, and the sound is not state-of-the-art by any means; it sounds like something from the late 1970s. The microphones pick up quite a bit of the mechanical workings, especially an insistent clicking in Bolero.

If you feel able to disregard matters such as these and enjoy the recording simply on the merits of its music and its playing, then do not let me stop you. Play the album to a friend without telling them what it is, as I have suggested above. They might not be able to guess that these are piano rolls, or that three of the composers are performing their own works, but they will surely hear that this is a varied, eclectic, wonderfully played collection of Spanish piano music.

Brian Reinhart

Three Spanish composers play their own music in a piano-roll treasure trove