Have you ever wondered what Peter Tchaikovsky's speaking voice sounded like? What about the piano playing of prominent Russian composers such as Sergey Taneyev (who died in 1915) or Anton Arensky (died 1906)? How about Arensky playing his famous Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32, with the string players that premiered it with him? By now you might be wondering if we also have a bridge we'd like to sell you -- but it's true. Such recordings DO exist and have been collected by ace transfer engineer and preservationist Ward Marston on Marston's The Dawn of Recording.
The Dawn of Recording contains a generous selection from the earliest surviving collection of classical music recordings, made by Russian businessman and phonographic hobbyist Julius Block. Block's circle included some of the most important musicians in late 19th century Russia -- Taneyev, Arensky, young pianist Josef Hofmann, novelist Leo Tolstoy, and even Peter Tchaikovsky. In the wake of Block's death in 1934, parts of the collection was dispersed and lost, and some believed its very existence no more than a rumor. In the early 1990s, eight Block cylinders were purchased by a private collector at auction, and subsequent research uncovered a large part of the collection -- more than 350 cylinders -- in Russia in 2002, where it had been taken during World War II after being removed from the Berlin Phonogrammarchiv.
Marston has worked out a three disc program for The Dawn of Recording: The Julius Block Cylinders, consisting of 95 selections chosen on the basis of importance and sound quality. And in some cases the sound quality truly is surprising. The piano of Taneyev, while tinkly, rises out of the wax in Mozart's Fantasie in C minor, K. 475, with perfect clarity and every note audible. A couple of the Josef Hofmann items come booming out of the wax with confidence and surprisingly little noise. There is a small handful of items in this collection which reproduce with that kind of fidelity. Some others are either faint, besmirched with the telltale swish of a warped, damaged, or moldy cylinder or the notorious "horses hooves" of a cylinder riddled with cracks. If you've listened to a lot of cylinders, you know to put on different ears and listen through the noise. Those who venture forth can listen to extensive selections from pianist and composer Paul Pabst, a Liszt student who died in 1897, not to mention Tchaikovsky's speaking voice, captured along with that of Anton Rubinstein in 1890. Tchaikovsky whistles a short passage, so at least we get a little music from him; cylinders made of his piano playing were duly noted in Block's register, but have yet to be located.
One cannot fail to be amazed at the window some of this material opens on this epoch in Western culture, long obliterated by war and as distant a musical experience from our time as one can imagine. Marston's The Dawn of Recording seems haunted by Tchaikovsky's ghost. This is what's left of the world in which he lived, and it's as close as we can come to it until we develop a way to travel backwards through time.
Sergei Taneyev, piano (recorded 1891) - Mozart: Fantasie in C minor, K. 475
Josef Hofmann, piano (recorded ca. 1896) - Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 38/5, "Passion"
Paul Pabst, piano (recorded 1895) - Tchaikovsky-Pabst: Paraphrase on Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Anton Arensky, piano; Jan HrÃmalÃ½, violin; Anatoly Brandukov, cello (recorded 1894) - Arensky: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 30 - Scherzo, allegro molto