Various Artists

Beethoven: The Original Piano Roll Recordings

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It's not every album that has blurbs from Rachmaninov, Mahler, Rubinstein, and Grieg (misspelled), but all these composers admired the American player piano. The piano rolls heard on this album were made between 1919 and 1931, when the technology was at its height but was a magnificent invalid being displaced by the 78 rpm record. It's a bit startling to hear the pianistic giants of the past -- Paderewski, Cortot, Myra Hess, the surprisingly technology-savvy Wanda Landowska, and others -- in fair if not full fidelity. And these state-of-the-art rolls captured some variation in dynamic levels, although the players apparently had to avoid pianissimi, and the accompanimental left-hand parts in the earlier sonatas are a bit overemphasized. Of course, the dynamics on a 78 that is throwing a hissy fit are a bit obscured as well, and these performances succeed in giving an idea of the distinctive personalities of the players involved -- the dramatic, changeable Eugen d'Albert, the explosive Paderewski, the elegant Hess, the smoothly charismatic Josef Hofmann. And the historical value of these recordings is high. Most of the pianists are freer with Beethoven's tempos than usual, and often not in the places where you would expect. Hear the opening theme of the final variation set of the Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, as played by Alfred Cortot. It is almost Chopin-esque, which would seem to counteract the quality of extreme simplicity that is necessary in late Beethoven in order to bring out the mind-boggling complexities the composer derives from his simple melodies. On the other hand, the roll captures all the details of the extremely virtuosic passages in the later variations of this movement; Cortot's performance is both exact and thrilling. The Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90, of d'Albert is a highly unusual, fantasy-like performance, and his Bagatelle in B minor, Op. 126/4, is another remarkable reading: he doesn't overplay the strange ragtime-like rhythms in the G major passages of the piece, but incorporates them into a texture of unusual rhythmic details that he uncovers. In short, this Australian release will be of great interest to collectors, even though the notes consist merely of a biography of Beethoven; it would have been much more helpful to hear about the technology involved.

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