Player Piano 2: Chopin played by Pianists around 1900

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Jürgen Hocker, the German chemist and player piano expert who is in the process of transferring the output of Conlon Nancarrow for MD&G, has contributed an additional side project in the form of Player Piano 2: Chopin. This consists of nine pianists "around 1900" (actually around 1920; the hand-played roll didn't appear until 1904) performing various Chopin pieces through the medium of the Ampico. Chopin was a heavily featured composer in the era of early records and roll recordings as these media suffered from time restrictions, and his works were short enough to fit. These roll recordings are all from the Ampico catalog or are Ampico dubs of Triphonola rolls. They are played on a Bösendorfer Grand using a roll-up type player and are recorded LOUD -- one would even say "juiced up," at least compared to what such machines sound like in person -- with little or no reverberation added.

The disc contains some interesting pianists -- namely Mieczyslaw Münz, who recorded the Ampico roll represented here in 1923 but lived until 1997, and Alfred Mirovitch, who studied with Anna Essipova at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and later taught at Juilliard. Perhaps most interesting are three Chopin rolls of "futurist" pianist Leo Ornstein, recorded between 1916 and 1924 and representing his first appearance on CD as a performer. These are among the most interesting Chopin interpretations on the disc; the Ornstein rolls are fairly well edited and his readings are strongly Romantic in style, as one might expect from another Essipova student, which he was, though not from the composer of Suicide in an Airplane. However, Hocker's choice of rolls is not limited to the well-edited class; here also is a badly edited Ferruccio Busoni Triphonola roll of Chopin's G minor Ballade, a confused jumble of notes punctuated by unlikely pedaling. Hocker argues for the superiority of the Ampico system over others, and cites the late critic Harold C. Schoenberg's condemnation of piano rolls, and later retraction of the earlier condemnation based on hearing an Ampico, as evidence that the Ampico is the Cadillac of roll reproducers. That may well be, but if the roll is no good, there's no way to fix it, and the Triphonola rolls here all have problems -- Alfred Reisenauer's rendering of Chopin's early Bolero is plagued with fits and starts, and d'Albert's "Minute" Waltz suffers from short bursts of slippery-sounding notes.

Speaking of notes, there are challenges in the booklet notes, as well -- for example the name "Hupfeld" spelled as "Hupfield" and Hocker's pronouncement that Leo Ornstein "did not make any gramophone recordings." He did, for American Columbia in 1916, and they were of Chopin. Oh well.

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