This is the latest continuation of “The Welte-Mignon Mystery” – from Germany’s Tacet label – Volume IV to be exact. We’ve reviewed in the past here several different CDs made from the amazing Welte piano rolls. (Put Welte in our site search engine.) I don’t believe the earlier volumes of this new series carried the statement on the jewel box that the results are so “right” that “it need not fear comparison with a living pianist.” That is the point of the Dead or Alive title of this CD.
To summarize, the Rube Goldbergish pneumatic-based Welte-Mignon recording system, originally perfected in the 1890s!, was far ahead of all other piano roll approaches in fidelity to the original performances, and 100% better than the scratchy gramophone and cylinder records of the period. The “registration” (recording) equipment for the rolls, which had been set up in Leipzig, Freiburg and New York City, is long gone. But when the few remaining “vorsetzer” mechanisms – with their 88 little mechanical fingers – are perfectly adjusted and rolled up to the keyboard of a modern Steinway grand, the resulting performance can be recorded in modern stereo and it is extremely close to that of a live performer at the keyboard.
But not quite, at least to my ears. But first, the unique idea behind this particular collection of Welte rolls: In going thru the approximately 4500 selections which exist in the Welte catalog, producer and Tacet CEO Andreas Spreer discovered many Welte recordists had chosen to register one of the Chopin Etudes. In fact, only five were missing to complete both opus numbers of the Etudes. He engaged pianist Peer Orth to record those five on the same Steinway used with the Welte vorsetzer to reproduce all the long-dead pianists’ rolls. The same digital recording equipment was used to record both the “alive” and the “dead” selections.
Some of the past pianists represented are forgotten today, but a couple whose style is identifiable do sound like the standard recordings they also made. The one Etude performed by Horowitz sounds exactly like his precise and virtuoso style. The job of making a comparison between the alive and dead would have been easier if just one single Etude on a Welte roll had also been performed by Orth. But I tackled the listening comparison , moving from track to track to see if the five alive tracks stood out in any way from the dead tracks. My summary of the distinctions comes down to two qualities: First, there is still a somewhat too-perfectly precise rhythm and phrasing on the rolls – the live performances having a more human flow and very slight departures from strict time.
Secondly, there is the more easily heard difference in dynamics – especially the attack on notes at highest volume level. The Welte rolls sound rolled off in this regard at both ends of the dynamic range. Extremely soft ppp passages seem to be upgraded to pp passages, and at the other end, there are simply no really loud piano climaxes – they sound compressed compared to what is heard from live pianist Orth. For example, the Welte roll of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, by pianist Galston lacks the fortissimo climaxes that make this work so compelling. It is true, as the note booklet states, that most of the previous Welte reissues were faulty in some regard and failed to portray the accurate sound possible with the system. Along these lines, Tacet’s CD has almost no noise from the mechanism – as do most of the previous reissues.
However, about eight years ago Telarc released “A Window in Time” – two CDs of Welte rolls cut by Rachmaninoff. (We have them on our 1998 and 99 Best of the Year Lists in the Archives.) But instead of using the original mechanical system, the information on the piano rolls was transferred to digital computer files and eventually fed into a Bösendorfer 290E Reproducing Piano to be recorded. The quality of these three dozen tracks is quite similar to the Tacet CD, though I hear less of the “too-perfect” quality. But compare the final track of the series – Rachmaninoff playing Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor – with the Revolutionary Etude on the Tacet disc. The big climaxes are twice as loud and strong on the transfer using the Bösendorfer and digital technology, and I believe would stand up better compared to a live pianist’s new recording of the piece. The unusual Tacet CD remains fascinating listening nevertheless.
– John Sunier