As Europe stood on the cusp of the First World War, the Orchestrelle company of London released a set of four rolls of Igor Stravinsky’s Piano Etudes, Op.7. The history of Stravinsky’s involvement with the piano roll industry, as related by Rex Lawson in his excellent booklet notes, makes for spirited, and nostalgic reading. The rolls of the Etudes were commissioned by Claude Johnson, subsequently managing director of Rolls Royce. The following year other Stravinsky rolls were commissioned, this time by Philip Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock. When Stravinsky came to the Aeolian Hall in London in 1914 to hear a pianola recital he was impressed, and Edwin Evans’s subsequent invitation for pianola compositions, made to a wide array of composers, brought forth from Stravinsky the Etude for pianola, which we hear on this disc.
The Rite of Spring derives from rolls made during Stravinsky’s time in Paris. There were nine Pleyela rolls, whereas for Petrushka there were seven. These were not played by a pianist in ‘real time’ – some rolls obviously were – but were a manufactured product and could therefore carry much more ‘information’ than a pianist could provide, especially when it came to extensive chording.
The results are fascinating, but mostly for the concept and its execution and not definitively because of any absolute statements regarding tempo decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the premieres of both works. It’s clear that Stravinsky would have supervised the punching out of the rolls, not least because he was living in the Pleyel building in Paris at the time, and was effectively on secondment to their engineers. One can admire Lawson’s negotiation of the rolls. He famously describes himself as the only professional concert pianolist in the world – rather like being the last Tasmanian Devil in captivity – and is an avowed exponent of the mechanism. The convoluted pedalling involved is probably even better witnessed than described.
These ex-MusicMasters performances appear in Nimbus livery seven years after their first appearance and two decades after they were recorded.