Player Piano 1: Nancarrow Vol. 1

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One would think that the definitive word on Conlon Nancarrow's player piano music, inasmuch as it circulates on CDs, has already been spoken -- minus a few unfinished items, every one of his works for mechanical instruments has circulated already, either on Wergo or Other Minds, or, going back into the days of vinyl, 1750 Arch and Columbia Masterworks. MDG's Player Piano I is yet a new spin on Nancarrow's music, courtesy of Jürgen Hocker, who became close to Nancarrow toward the end of his life. Hocker did a lot to advance performances of Nancarrow through mounting a series of concert tours for him, utilizing pianos of Hocker's design.

Rather than employing Nancarrow's own matched and modified Ampico players, Hocker is utilizing a Bösendorfer piano with an Ampico attachment and fitted with hardened felt hammers. Most of Nancarrow's rolls are one of a kind, so in such cases Hocker has photocopied and re-cut them utilizing a hand puncher similar to the one Nancarrow used. The sound of the piano is a bit quieter than in other issues, and not as clattery -- Hocker has moved the bellows and the wind motor of the instrument into another room, so what one hears is the unobstructed sound of the roll playing the Bösendorfer. In his writings, Hocker often stresses that "(Nancarrow) anticipated by decades the possibilities offered today by computer music." Be that as it may, a player piano is not a computer, and in the four decades Nancarrow's player piano music has been known, no one has complained about blower noise or hammer chatter typical to player pianos. You might as well convert all of Nancarrow's rolls to MIDI and play them on a Disklavier.

In concert, Nancarrow preferred to mix the rolls up to keep the program fresh, in the MDG series, Hocker has elected to present them in strict numerical sequence. This works in a way, but also doesn't; the rolls are not chronological (Study No. 3a, for example, might be the earliest), and hearing Nancarrow's three additional glosses on Study No. 2a in sequence does not assist us in extrapolating his compositional intentions. Mostly it is like listening to alternate takes of a recorded performance in which the variants are rather subtle, and some listeners will not be able to resist the temptation to move the program forward. Nancarrow never specified tempos for his Studies, and as he grew older he tended to prefer them played faster. The Study No. 1 here is definitely too fast for these ears; the recording on New World's Sound Forms for Piano seems more comfortable and idiomatic. Study No. 3c is only slightly faster than usual, but the tempo choice is just fast enough to take all of the boogie woogie out of it, and Hocker's copy of the roll also seems to be missing a few notes here and there. Study No. 6 sounds good, however, so some of the tempo choices do work, it's just that Hocker's tempi is not as consistent from track to track as in collections made during Nancarrow's own lifetime.

In the world of reissued performances taken from hand-played piano rolls, alternate readings are common among CDs -- just look at the wide variety of versions currently available of the Ampico rolls that Sergey Rachmaninov made. In the final analysis, the sound, though quiet, is decent, and some listeners might prefer Hocker's realizations to the competition, even as the liberties he takes might seem wide of the mark. However, MDG's Player Piano I is not likely to be declared the definitive statement on Nancarrow's work, so don't throw away your Wergo set -- it's still good for what it is.

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