We’ve reviewed a number of previous CD reissues of new recordings made of historical piano rolls played back on either specially-restored original mechanical instruments, or using an 88-fingered “vorsetzer” rolled up to a modern grand piano and recorded in digital stereo or even a completely redone computerized realization, played back on a Yamaha Disklavier Pro grand piano. (Tacet insists these are not historical recordings, but somehow they seem to belong in this particular section of our site.)

The Welte-Mignon system, patented in 1904, was undoubtedly the most sophisticated and complex of all the reproducing piano technologies. They preserved details of dynamics, touch and phrasing that other systems ignored. The Rube Goldbergish system used a tray of mercury under the keyboard, rubber rollers and ink to indicate the notes and their dynamic levels, and was operated using a plethora of pneumatic hoses (not unlike the Citroens I used to drive). Some of the top composers and pianists of the time cut piano rolls for the Welte company, including Debussy and Ravel, because their results were light years ahead of the primitive disc recordings of that era. The factory in Germany was destroyed in WWII, but a number of rolls and players still exist and some experts at properly setting up the special players have restored them to make possible new stereo recordings of modern grand pianos reproducing the performances of great composers originally recorded in the early years of the 20th century.

The computerized recordings of Rachmaninoff on Telarc were quite convincing (though they didn't originate from Welte rolls), but the Tacet label has approached the leading Welte expert to set up the original sound production mechanism and has recorded the results in excellent modern stereo on a series of CDs now numbering a dozen. Some of the previous efforts from other sources have still sounded quite player-pianoish, and often were marred by the mechanical sounds and leaks in the Welte pneumatic pressure system. These Tacet recordings are free from all of that. The music of both Debussy and Ravel is one of the ultimate tests of the technology, since the pedaling is such an important factor in Debussy and pristine clarity of execution is such a vital factor in the music of Ravel. The two selections composed and performed here by Ravel are not in the least impressionistic or slushy; they are built on precise dance forms. These recordings pass the test extremely well. Note the just-right amount of pedal used by Debussy - coloring the impressionistic tone-painting but not blurring things together. No other piano-roll recordings have that. Also notice Ravel’s lack of synchronization between his two hands in the slow movements. The Sunken Cathedral has long been one of my favorite Debussy works, and although I was thinking of the orchestral versions (or Tomita’s amazing electronic version), I think now I’ll revert to this iteration of the composer’s own piano version. These treasures from the Welte-Mignon should be heard by every piano student.
John Sunier

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