The Great Russian Pianists - The Original Piano Roll Recordings
see end of review for track listing
Recorded on piano rolls made between 1908 and 1933 and transferred to CD in 1992.
This CD is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The title is The Great Russian Pianists though the pianists are not all Russian and neither are the composers, though most are. The scant booklet notes also don’t include all the pianists and there is no mention of the composer where the composer is not also the performer. That said the disc as a piece of pianistic history is quite incredible. It’s not the first such disc I’ve come across or reviewed but they never fail to stupefy me. Interestingly enough this month’s BBC Music Magazine has an interesting article on wax cylinders and it points out how difficult they were to make and to keep over the years as they were very delicate. When you hear discs like this that are recordings made from piano rolls that sound as fresh as if they’d been made yesterday you have to ask why anyone bothered to do anything else prior to the invention of the gramophone and the shellac disc when it came to recording the piano. I suppose it was because with piano rolls you needed a reproducing piano and they presumably were expensive compared to what reproduced the sound from a wax cylinder.
The sheer quality of sound that comes with this disc means you keep having to remind yourself what and who you are listening to. This includes Liapunov playing his own Elegy on the death of Liszt Op.11which he made in 1910, four years before the beginning of the first world war or Scriabin playing his own works, a composer who died in 1915. The fact that the earliest recording here dates from 1908 and the most recent is from 1933 is irrelevant as the quality is almost identical with some exceptions in some treble passages which sound rather tinny though that might be my equipment rather than the disc.
Usually a review either concerns itself with the music where that is less well known or the interpretation where it’s better known, sometimes with both where neither is well known, whereas here the main thing is the sheer fact that we can hear giants of the past as if they were around today. I find this particularly amazing when it comes to hearing Prokofiev playing his own music or Horowitz’s masterly interpretations of Rachmaninov preludes, fingers flying up and down the keyboard like a man possessed. As mentioned above it is also salutary to hear Scriabin playing his own preludes - not that he ever bothered with anyone else’s music. It was also breathtaking to contemplate that Cherkassky made the piano roll of Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R. in 1924 at the age of 12 in 1924 - though some sources give his year of birth as 1909 not 1911 - and staggering to think that I saw him play in the 1970s in his favoured way without shoes. Incidentally I found it interesting to discover that the W.R. in the title of that piece refers to Rachmaninov’s father’s name: the W for Wasili being the Germanic form. It appears that Rachmaninov may have believed it was originally a tune his father had composed and which he arranged; he did not know that in fact it was by Franz Behr (1837-1896) a prolific but now forgotten composer.
I particularly enjoyed the Liapunov work Elegy on the death of Liszt Op.11 which is the longest piece on the disc giving the listener a better chance of assessing his playing which is quite exceptional. Again it is incredible to think that he died in 1924. That particular piano roll is also apparently extremely rare, as the notes explain he only made four rolls for the Welte Mignon Company which was one of the most famous of the reproducing piano manufacturers. However, for me a disc such as this is the star itself irrespective of what’s on it so it is difficult to choose favourites though the Prokofiev, Horowitz, Cherkassky and Liapunov are outstanding. I’ve said before that future generations will have an amazing archive of music preserved in so many forms from wax cylinders to mp3 and no doubt other methods will be invented in time. In our own time we are already supremely fortunate to have these fascinating documents to marvel at. I’m writing this passage whilst listening to Godowsky playing Moszkowsky’s Polonaise in D Op.17. I have to agree with the notes which say that the performance “can be compared with any before or since and still be called outstanding by any criterion”. They go on to say that that goes for any of the 170 piano rolls he made between 1907 and 1930 - extraordinary!
If you like being ‘gobsmacked’ by music and performances then this is the disc to do it.
Steve Arloff 

If you like being ‘gobsmacked’ by music and performances then this is the disc to do it. 

Track listing
Theodore LESCHETITZKY (1830-1915)
Two Skylarks Op.2 No.1 [2:34]
Performed by the composer
Vasili SAPELLNIKOV (1867-1941)
Dance of the Elves Op.3 [4:09]
Performed by Ossip Gabrilowitsch
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nutcracker Suite Op.71a - Dance of the Reed Flutes [2:10]
Performed by Percy Grainger
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Prelude in C Op.12 No.7 [2:07]
Performed by the composer
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude in A minor Op.32 No.8 [1:06]; Prelude in B minor Op.32 No.10 [3:24]; Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5 [3:18]
Performed by Vladimir Horowitz
Rigadon Op.12 No.3 [1:18]; Scherzo Op.12 No.10 [2:21]; March from The Love for Three Oranges [1:31]; Intermezzo from The Love for Three Oranges [1:14]
Performed by the composer
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Gavotte Op.49 No.3 [2:26]
Performed by Sergei Prokofiev
Tales of the Old Grandmother Op.31 [3:12]
Performed by the composer
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Prelude in C Op.11 No.1 [0:45]; Prelude in A minor Op.11 No.13 [1:36]; Prelude in G flat minor Op.11 No.13 [1:28]
Performed by the composer
Sergei LIAPUNOV (1859-1924)
Elegy on the death of Liszt Op.11 [10:51]
Performed by the composer
Polka De W.R. [4:26]
Performed by Shura Cherkassky
Song without words No.2 [3:10]
Performed by Shura Cherkassky
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Polonaise in D Op.17 [7:09]
Performed by Leopold Godowsky
Malagueña Op.49 No.1 [4:47]
Performed by Rudolph Ganz
Mazurka Op.24 [3:44]
Performed by the composer
Serenade Op.15 [2:12]
Performed by Ignaz Friedman