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Nine different pianists of the past at the sophisticated Welte recording device, with their collected interpretations of works by Rachmaninoff.

A number of different labels have released CDs of stereo recordings of Welte Mignon piano rolls as reproduced today with a restored “vorsetzer” or complete piano with the mechanism built in. This amazingly complex mechanical system was invented and perfected in 1904, at a time when acoustic recordings of the piano sounded really terrible. It was capable of a much greater degree of realism in spite of the fact that a few corners had to be cut. For example there was an economy version that didn’t cover all 88 keys of the piano, and volume differences on both systems could only be registered between the bass and treble ends of the keyboard—not between the individual notes in a particular chord. The original recordings used rubber rollers which impressed a line of varying thickness for each note (for volume level) with ink on a paper roll, which was than transferred by experts into punched holes in the final playable rolls, which controlled a vacuum system which depressed the various keys. There was both a “roll up” player with fingers that contacted the keys of any grand piano, and models with built-in mechanisms. It was certainly the best piano reproduction instrument of its time. The sensational invention lasted until 1932, by which time electrical recording and radio had spelled the end of this expensive mechanical wonder. (The Blu-ray of Mahler’s Fourth we just reviewed has as an extra a fascinating video of the Welt Mignon in action.)

Tacet’s chief engineer has engaged the services of one of the leading experts on the historic Welte Mignon system, Hans W. Schmitz, and he has restored the sophisticated player pianos so that they could be recorded in stereo with a minimum of mechanical noise and the greatest realism. (And leaving this whole operation German from beginning to end, which seems appropriate.) Rachmaninoff himself had a fine piano technique and in fact recorded (electrically) all of his piano concerti himself, but he had a deal with the Ampico piano roll company and so never made any Welte Mignon recordings. However, a number of pianists of the period did, and this CD assembles the Welte rolls from nine of them. Jozef Hofman is probably the most famous of them all, and he is heard in only one Prelude: No. 3 in d minor. Vladimir Horowitz cut a Welte roll in 1926 of the Prelude No. 6 in g minor, as well as Nos. 5 & 12 from Opus 32. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata in B-flat minor is played ion 1923 by pianist Paul Strecker.

Fascinating to hear, and certainly a more satisfying listening experience than listening to the primitive pre-electrical recordings of piano music of this period, even with today’s digital noise-control remastering. However, to my ears there is still an overall feeling of a sort of robot-at-the-keyboard at some spots in the music. There are some subtle little details that a live performer communicates at the keyboard which are somehow not here. Still, this is a valuable historical document.

John Sunier

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