The Britannic Organ - Vol. 5
See track-listing at end of review
Welte-Mignon Philharmonic Organ
rec. March 2012, Museum für Musikautomaten, Seewen, Switzerland
OEHMS CLASSICS OC844 [75:18 + 76:09

This is a fascinating set for all sorts of reasons. First, a bit of background. Listeners will be familiar with the concept of player pianos, where the performance is captured – and reproduced – on a perforated roll. Emil Welte (1841-1923), the son of German mechanical instrument builder Michael Welte (1807-1880) emigrated to the United States, where he patented the first piano roll in 1889. In 1904 the Welte-Mignon company refined the system, which now enabled the expressive, non-mechanical nuances of a performance to be recorded as well.
In 1905 Gustav Mahler was persuaded to make rolls of his own, the remarkable results of which can be heard on Mahler plays Mahler: The Welte-Mignon Rolls (Pickwick CD GLRS 101). Even more than with composers and performers caught on wax cylinders or early mechanical/electrical recordings there’s something unnerving – even spooky – about these Mahler rolls; perhaps it’s the shock of hearing them in digital stereo, rather than through the tunnel-like sound and crackle of old-fashioned music delivery systems. In this case it really is as if we are in the Leipzig studios of M. Welte & Sohne, watching the master play.
In 1911 Welte-Mignon introduced their ‘Philharmonic Organ’, an early example of which was destined for the prestigious WhiteStar liner HMHS Britannic. In the event, the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 meant the instrument was never delivered. In 1916 the vessel, pressed into service as a hospital ship, struck a German mine off the Greek island of Kea and sank fifty-five minutes later. As for Welte-Mignon, their Freiburg premises were flattened by Allied bombs in the next war. It wasn’t until its restoration in 2007 that the Philharmonic Organ at Seewen was confirmed as the one destined for the Britannic.
This recording, the fifth in the Britannic Organ series, differs from earlier instalments in that it doesn’t use rolls made from live performances. Instead, these Wagner excerpts feature ‘designed’ rolls hand-crafted by Welte-Mignon technicians using the original scores and performance practices of the time. As before, the rolls – a mix of masters and copies – attempt to reflect tempo, phrasing and dynamics. It’s a unique project, and Oehms and organ consultant/musical director David Rumsey must be congratulated for being so committed to it. As I’ve never heard this instrument – a technical marvel in its day – I was intrigued to hear how it sounds.
The first thing one notices is that this isn’t a ‘big’ sound, but the Tannhäuser overture certainly sounds expressive. Ultimately though, the Philharmonic Organ is a fairly crude device; there are moments of roughness, accordion-like surges and the sound is strident in the climaxes. That said, these arrangements – some noticeably more competent than others – are generally entertaining indeed. On a fanciful note, there is that same sense of travelling back in time, of Edwardian audiences – in all their finery – marvelling at this strange machine.
The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla is one of the better arrangements, and the range of sometimes clangorous sonorities produced here is just astonishing. Subtle it isn’t, but Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music has terrific presence and power; here the organ’s bright upper reaches are balanced by a warm but not over-extended bass. It actually sounds hauntingly beautiful at times, although this fragile spell is easily broken by moments of brashness, especially when the instrument’s capabilities – and those of its ‘programmers’ – are sorely tested.
The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin has a pleasing – if somewhat splashy – appeal, but ‘Dreams’ from the Wesendonck Lieder is a strange, rather disembodied affair; it’s a valiant effort, but it’s too tremulous for my tastes. At the other extreme is the march written for Wagner’s royal patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria; it’s loud, vulgar and pretty uncomfortable to listen to at times. Meanwhile the opening moments of the Meistersinger overture are very swift indeed, and what follows is ragged and rather approximate, to say the least.
I suppose it’s all too easy to forget that you are listening to a novelty instrument in a museum and not a full-sized, well-tuned and dynamically extended one in a church or concert hall. Allowances have to be made for a lack of refinement and subtlety. Just when one might be tempted to press eject along comes another of those oddly hypnotic pieces, such as the Das Liebesmahl der Apostel arrangement; darkly intense, it’s one of the more rewarding items on the second disc.
Add to that a surprisingly Gothic Funeral March from Götterdämmerung – perhaps more like the accompaniment for a Lon Chaney silent or Erich von Stroheim’s weird keyboard doodling in Sunset Boulevard – and you soon realise just how variable these arrangements are. Tannhäuser’s Pilgrimage is no exception; it has moments of repose but otherwise there’s a hugely exaggerated ebb and flow to the performance that’s rather tiresome after a while. The Liebestod is underpinned by a lugubrious bass that won’t appeal to those who like a bit more lift and ecstasy in this music. The organ’s lack of seamless delivery is a major drawback in this of all pieces, and the shifts and nuances of the original are way beyond its capabilities.
Although musically uneven this set has real curiosity/historical value, and it should appeal to anyone with an interest in mechanical musical instruments. Devotees of Wagner may be harder to persuade, their supposedly refined sensibilities easily taxed by the Philharmonic Organ’s inherent crudities. As for the CD packaging, the flimsy double-gatefold case is just tacky, especially for a full-price issue. Add to this an informative booklet that’s been glued to the central panel and the whole effect is low-rent indeed.
Technically fascinating; of limited interest musically.
Dan Morgan
Technically fascinating; of limited interest musically.

CD 1 [75:18]
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Overture Welte Roll 636 (copy) [15:16]
Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla - Welte Roll 788 (master) [7:04]
Die Walküre: Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music - Welte Roll 1093 (copy) [15:00]
Parsifal: Klingsor’s Magic Garden and Flower Maidens - Welte Roll 921 (master) [12:51]
Lohengrin: Bridal Chorus - Welte Roll 1667 (master) [2:58]
Wesendonck Lieder: Dreams - Welte Roll 1357 (master) [5:26]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I - Welte Roll 1668 (master) [8:41]
Homage March for King Ludwig II - Welte Roll 1500 (copy) [8:02]
CD 2 [76:09]
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Overture - Welte Roll 1270 (copy) [9:16]
Das Liebesmahl der Apostel - Welte Roll 1876 (master) [13:44]
Götterdämmerung: Funeral March - Welte Roll 1189 (master) [12:27]
Tannhäuser: Tannhäuser’s Pilgrimage - Welte Roll 1499 (copy) [10:25]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I - Welte Roll 1032 (master) [8:26]
Lohengrin: Lohengrin’s Admonition - Welte Roll 792 (master) [3:51]
Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod - Welte Roll 1724 (copy) [6:21]
Rienzi: Overture - Welte Roll 643 (copy) [11:39]

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