Patchwork Europe is a collection from the German label Wergo of historic world music recordings made between 1911 and 1954 curated by Christoph Wagner. It is not surprising in itself to see a world music title from Wergo, which is the recording concern belonging to the huge European publisher Schott International, as Wergo has a division called "Weltmusik" that has carried newly made world music releases for quite some time. Nevertheless, it IS somewhat unusual to see the label dip into the great, uncollected pool of 78 rpm recordings of traditional music to fashion a compilation such as Patchwork Europe. These kinds of releases are more readily associated with Pat Conte's Secret Museum of Mankind Series on Shanachie, which runs to eight volumes, or long ago Henry Cowell's Music of the World's Peoples LPs on Folkways.
This is Wagner's doing; a CD note writer and book author employed by Wergo who has issued two other compilations of this kind; Global Accordion and Echoes of Africa. Wagner's strongest expertise is in the field of free reed instruments, and although Patchwork Europe is represented as a collection demonstrating a wide range of European traditional music captured by the early phonograph, it is pretty heavily weighted by recordings that feature free-reeds; various kinds of accordions, launeddas, hurdy-gurdy, bandoneon, and so on. In addition, a good number of the recordings featured here were made in New York of European musicians who had immigrated to the United States. As these words are written, one can already feel the concept behind Patchwork Europe beginning to unravel, but who cares about that? How good are the individual items represented? Quite good on the whole -- there is a beautiful tarogato solo from around 1914, a splendid example of launeddas from 1937, an excellent 1938 solo from Hardanger fiddler Gjermund Haugen, a strangely bluesy 1948 piece from Greek singer Georgia Mittaki, and captivating selections from Albania, Belarus, Mallorca, and elsewhere. One ear-opening segment is from a 1911 German Odeon of Swiss yodelers simulating the sound of their traditional leading of cattle up into the mountains in the springtime, complete with clattering cowbells and a faraway din of pans and drums.
The one major drawback to Patchwork Europe is that the noise reduction is too aggressive; it is even interventionist than the primitive gating used on Cowell's Music of the World's Peoples series. This is where the Secret Museum of Mankind gets it right; it lets noisy records be noisy so long as the sonically limited content of the originals comes through. On Patchwork Europe, audible digital artifacts, such as the telltale aluminum air vent sound of digital noise reduction, are present, and certain records sound "squashed." Patchwork Europe may not tell you everything you need to know about traditional European music in one shot, but it is like sitting down with a good and very knowledgeable collector of old records and going through some of his/her personal favorites; for this reason alone it is recommendable -- others may find more value to it than shortcomings.