Great Pianists on Piano Rolls

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Italian label Phonographe was a short-lived division of Nuova Era; its Great Pianists on Piano Rolls is a collection of Welte-Mignon roll recordings dating from 1905 to 1914, though mostly taken from the first two seasons of the Welte (1905-1906). To those conversant in the realm of the great pianists, this will seem like an unbelievable treasure trove; Liszt's last student, Bernhard Stavenhagen, playing the master's St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Water, Ravel's roll of the second movement of his own Sonatine, Grieg's roll of his own Papillion, and selections from Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and others. While the overall selection is impressive, there is no word of sources provided in the booklet, which is no more than a single bi-folio listing the tracks and dates, which for Welte were release dates and not dates of recording. An educated guess would suggest that these were taken from either LPs or tapes of Welte rolls issued in the 1950s or '60s. After CBS Masterworks' relatively high profile "Great Masters of the Keyboard" series there came a flood of piano roll LPs from smaller labels such as Rare Records, Book of the Month Club, Superscope, and others. Some of these companies also marketed their wares directly to the open reel tape format, and that's what much of this sounds like. While the tape-to-CD transfers are okay, faults owing to the original tapes are glaringly obvious; the Stavenhagen roll of the St. Francis of Paola Legend is played at a ridiculously fast tempo, shaving nearly a whole minute from the original performance. Also some of the rolls chosen are less than stellar, such as José Vianna da Motta's clunky and distracted 1905 roll of Weber's Polacca Brillante, or Ferruccio Busoni's heavy-handed and slippery performance of Chopin's F sharp major Nocturne, which sounds like it's sourced from a 78 of a piano roll.

If one wants to sample the heritage of great pianism from the Welte, then there are far preferable alternatives out there on labels such as Naxos, Pierian Recording Society, Dal Segno, and so on. This Phonographe release is a knock off and a rip off, and you probably don't need it.

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