BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 (Rec. 12/18, 1952). TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 (Rec. 1/29/30, 1952)
Solomon, pianist; Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Eduard van Beinum, cond. (Beethoven)/Kansas City Philharmonic Orch/Hans Schweiger, cond. (Tchaikovsky)
APR 5651 (F) (ADD) TT: 67:01
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WELTE-MIGNON PIANO ROLLS (Volume I)
PADEREWSKI: Minuet, Op. 14 No. 1 (Ignacy J. Paderewski, 2/27/06); STRAUSS-SCHULZ-EVER: The Blue Danube, Arabesque (Josef Lhevinne, 10/6/06); SAINT-SAËNS: Rapsodie d'Auvergne in C, Op. 73 (Camille Saint-Saëns, 12/13/05); CHOPIN: Polonaise in F-sharp, Op. 44 (Josef Hofmann, 10/20/05); PAGANINI-LISZT: Paganini Etude No. 5 in E (Egon Petri, 4/22/05); SCHUBERT-TAUSIG: Military March in D (Télémaque Lambrino, 3/9/05); GRUNFELD: Dinner Waltz from The Man About Town (Alfred Grunfeld, 1/20/05); RAVEL: Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit (Walter Gieseking, unknown date); HAYDN/SAINT-SAËNS: Andante from Symphony No. 94 (Rudolf Ganz, unknown date); RAMEAU/GODOWSKY: Minuet in A Minor (Hans Haass, 1925?); BIZET-HOROWITZ: Virtuoso Fantasy from Carmen (Vladimir Horowitz, Mar. 1927); GLAZUNOV: La Nuit (Rudolf Ganz, unknown date); VOGRICH: Staccato Caprice in F-sharp (Yolanda Mero, 10/30/05)
NAXOS 8.110677 (B) (ADD) TT: 68:02
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The APR disc is called "Concert recordings I" and features a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 recorded in Amsterdam December 18, 1952 with Eduard van Beinum conducting, plus Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 recorded with the Kansas City Philharmonic conducted by Hans Schweiger January 29/30, 1952. The gem of this disc is the Beethoven, a meeting of giants indeed, with Solomon's majestic playing expertly accompanied by Beinum's superb orchestra. This performance is available elsewhere; it's included in the 12-disk Q Disc set reviewed on this site. Bryan Crimp's careful transfer is more natural in scope than what is heard on Q Disc. The Tchaikovsky concerto is another matter, a concert where the soloist realizes from the start there are going to be accompaniment problems and decides "the hell with it" and just lets it rip. Horowitz had the same thing experience in his American orchestral debut with the NYP conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham January 12, 1928, although in that case it was a clash of strong personalities rather than an orchestra unable to play the notes properly. I remember a performance of the Tchaikovsky many years ago with Horowitz and the Chicago Symphony conducted by Desiré Defauw in which horns flubbed all four of the opening notes!—afterwards all was dazzling). Here we find Solomon in a quite dynamic mood indeed, not note-perfect which is understandable under the circumstances, and he makes a quick recovery after a slip in the first-movement cadenza. The orchestra throughout is tentative, and recorded with dry ambience—although piano sound is fine. Admirers of Solomon surely will wish to have this CD. I look forward to future volumes in this series.

The Welte-Mignon Reproducing Piano evolved from a mechanical music machine that began in 1832. Finally, about the turn of the century, "M. Welte and Sons, Freiburg i, Br." perfected their machine which could register a piano performance, supposedly with all of its rhythmic and dynamic nuances, on a "piano roll" which was a series of perforated paper strips. These could then be played on special keyboard instruments equipped with a mechanism that would reproduce the original performance.The system was high acclaimed at the time and many leading pianists made "recordings" for the process, and in many cases composers were heard performing their own music This is what the system looked like, placed in front of a grand piano:

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The playback systems were quite involved with little agreement today about how accurately it reproduced original performances. There was a carbon rod beneath each key on the piano used for the recording. The rod dipped into a trough of mercury to complete an electric circuit as the pianist struck the note, producing electric impulses that moved inked rollers to make marks ona blank paper roll along with encloded indications of striking force and velocity. The inked role could be read electrically and played back for the artist's approval, and then was "translated manually" to produce the perforated Master Roll from which copies were replicated for sale. The system was quite popular but only for the wealthy. With the introduction of electrical recording in the mid-twenties interest diminished in the Welte-Mignon system and production of recordings and instruments stopped.

Richard Simonton, Jr. produced and engineered the performances heard on this CD. Mr. Simonton's father "picked through the rubble" of the remains of the Welte factory in Freiburg in 1948 and was able to locate some master rolls and other equipment. In 1952 he was able to find a Steinway-Welte piano which reportedly belonged to Hitler. Legend has it that the instrument was away being serviced at the end of the war and thus escaped destruction. CD notes give much information about the Welte-Mignon system but, unfortunately, nothing about the performers. The earliest recording was made in 1905, the latest 1927. Some major names are there including Paderewski (a neurotic performance of his own Minuet in G recorded in Leipzig in 1906, much different than his Victor recording made in 1937, four years before his death at the age of 81). Lhevinne is represented by a quite spectacular Blue Danube as well as Hofmann, Petri, Gieseking (a remarkable Ondine) and Horowitz (Carmen Fantasy). But we also have lesser-knowns including a stodgy performance of Schubert's Military March played by one Télémaque Lambrino. How acurately are all of these? No way to tell really, but what is heard here sounds very impressive sonically with little trace of "wooden" sound one might expect from a machine. The delicate filigree of the Ravel and Johann Strauss pieces is conveyed cleanly, and throughout there is considerble dynamic range.

Welte-Mignon was not the only "reproducing piano." The Ampic Reproducing Piano works through an air pump and a complex network of tubes and valves which press keys and pedals with seven levels of intensity for each note. Many leading pianists of the time, including Ernst von Dohnányi, Josef Lhevinne and Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded for this system.

More than fifteen years ago I acquired an Intercord CD (860 855, now out of print) that consisted entirely of composers performing their own music on Welte-Mignon piano rolls including Mahler playing the first movement of his Symphony No. 5, Strauss playing Dance of the Seven Veils, and other performances by Grieg, Scriabin, Saint-Saëns (the same Rapsodie d'Auvergne heard on the Naxos CD), Reger, Ravel and Debussy. It would be interesting to see the entire catalog of material that was recorded, and to know what has managed to survive almost a century later. (NOTE: a reader has informed me there is a complete list of Welte-Mignon piano rolls available on the internet: http://www.rprf.org/PDF/. It's a huge, fascinating list you may wish to check out; I am informed it lists only classical repertory). In the meantime, collectors should welcome this budget-priced issue, a true relic of the past.

R.E.B. (August 2003)