Welte-Mignon Piano, Vol. 2

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At the Hotel Waldhaus Sils-Maria in St. Moritz, Switzerland -- the very model of a fin de siècle European resort hotel nestled in the foothills below an Alpine mountain range and beloved of guests ranging from Richard Strauss to David Bowie -- there is a working Welte-Mignon piano that is kept in good tune. The selections on the Welte rolls it plays suggest that both instrument and rolls were acquired when the Waldhaus opened in 1908, and at that time the Welte was regarded as one of the wonders of the age, able to reproduce the playing of the world's great pianists with astonishing clarity and accuracy. Tudor's Welte-Mignon Piano: Hotel Waldhaus Sils-Maria, Vol. 2, is packaged with a cover in keeping with its venue, a royal blue digipak as handsome as would be a menu from the Hotel Waldhaus' restaurant. The ambiance of the room in which it was recorded is quite suitable; slightly reverberant, but not too much, and the piano sounds like it is in generally good repair. To be able to sit in this hotel and listen to its Welte must be a genuinely magical experience.

To listen to it on a CD, however, is a different story. This particular Welte mechanism is rather clunky, and despite what the liner notes -- which are a kind of mixture of promotional bluster and damage control -- state, there is no great mystery to the Welte system such as the notes describe and there are technicians who know how to tweak a Welte, not to mention expert operators to get the best playback out of one. Overall, the annotators write as though the Hotel Waldhaus owns the only Welte and rolls in the world and that is quite simply not so. They even suggest that some of the clunk owes to the performance tradition of the era; certainly rubato and other effects that tend to retard or otherwise break down a continuous flow of music were more prevalent then than now, but the extent to which it is heard on this disc is ridiculous. Although Vladimir de Pachmann could be highly eccentric and willful in pieces like the Mozart Rondo Alla Turca heard here, the mechanism renders his playing as though it were your eight-year-old nephew or elderly aunt who dusts off the piano in the parlor once in awhile.

That said, this disc does have a couple of desirable items, pieces one is likely to hear only on piano rolls; Jósef Wieniawski's glittery Konzertwalzer, Op. 3, and Sydney Smith's churchy Second Fantasia on Martha, Op. 119. However, much of the rest can be frustrating; while one is grateful to hear Arthur Friedheim's roll of Mendelssohn's "Sadness of the Soul" (aka, the Song Without Words No. 22) -- a performance not included on Nimbus' first-rate 1998 CD devoted to Friedheim's rolls -- the roll is played too slowly, lugubriously galumphing along. As a souvenir of a unique mechanical instrument in an exotic place, Tudor's Welte-Mignon Piano: Hotel Waldhaus Sils-Maria Vol. 2 is wonderful, but as a forum for the great pianists whose rolls are included here, it is something of a bust, albeit a very well recorded one.

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