The patented process for the Welte-Mignon reproduction of keyboard playing might be construed either as a sophisticated gimmick or a kind of musical time-machine that allows us a glimpse into the musical past as transposed to a modern, brilliant-sounding Steinway. Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), the otherwise conservative exponent of the Leschetizky school of pianism, sat before the Vorsetzer mechanism in 1905, when for all intent, he was still committed to a more "romantic" ethos than his later, almost exclusively Viennese and German inscriptions permit. The music of Johann Strauss and Joseph Lanner from Schnabel places him in the salon of virtuoso pianists from which he later would prefer to have been excluded. Harold C. Schonberg once designated Schnabel as "the man who invented Beethoven," an epithet meant to segregate Liszt and Chopin from Schnabel’s heady list of revered Vienna masters, Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven. Schnabel called Chopin "the composer for right-handed geniuses."
So, this Tacet issue from the vaults of time proves most illuminating, as it places Schnabel into a circle of devotees of the Vienna waltz and Schubert evenings that could also embrace the "pretty" compositions of Chopin and Weber. Schubert’s noble waltzes flow effortlessly directly from the same fount as Lanner’s Old-Vienna Waltzes. The one Impromptu - the later recording of which for EMI remains a classic - has a brisker, risky element absent from the reading some 33 years later. The otherwise slight Intermezzo in C by Brahms gains anxious demonism in the course of its metric transitions, a real tour de force in a nutshell. Chopin’s F Minor enjoys an eccentric pulse without any break in the motoric regularity. Schnabel did commit to disc a later version of Weber’s charming Invitation to the Dance; here, the music proceeds both literally and tenderly, the accents suggestive of the rustic origins of the waltz form. The bravura passages ripple as briskly as anything from Hofmann, Brailowsky, and Arrau. Schnabel’s Bach always had an accent; in the Welte-Mignon incarnation, he sounds like Gould or Serkin.
The caveat about all this is in fact the loss of legato as a trait in Schnabel’s playing; more damning critics find all personality missing from the Welte-Mignon process. For Schnabel, whose touch identified him above all others, the mechanism may totally distort his keyboard persona: but to have this particular repertory, the Chopin Nocturne in F Minor, the second of the Schubert Klavierstuecke, the investment yields some fascinating results. [Yes, though it was far superior to all the other piano-roll processes, the Welte-Mignon was not perfect, but would you rather listen to this music thru the roar of noise on 1905-vintage acoustic discs? (If there were any such.)...Ed.] Gary Lemco

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