* GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A minor; Violin Sonata No. 3; Wedding Day at Troldhaugen; Album Leafs Op. 28 Nos. 1 & 2; Erotikon, To Spring – Percy Grainger piano roll/Kristiansand Symphony orchestra/Rolf Gupta; Bjorå/Rex – 2L music-only Blu-ray + hybrid SACD

by | Oct 7, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A minor; Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor; Wedding Day at Troldhaugen; Album Leafs Op. 28 Nos. 1 & 2; Erotikon, To Spring – Percy Grainger piano roll (in Concerto)/Kristiansand Symphony orchestra/Rolf Gupta; Øyvind Bjorå, violin/Rex Lawson, pianolist; Edvard Grieg piano rolls (first 4 piano solos); Percy Grainger piano roll (To Spring) – 2L 60SABD multichannel hi-res, 2 discs: Blu-ray with 5.1 DTS-HD tracks (192/24), 7.1 DTS-HD tracks (96/24), or 2.0 PCM (192/24) + 5.1 SACD disc with optional 2.0 & CD layer (Distr. by Naxos) ***** [8/26/09]:

My first reaction on seeing the latest in the courageous series of music-only Blu-ray + SACD sets from 2L in Norway was surprise at their choosing to release yet another version of this most popular piano concerto on earth. (Its first movement theme has been used in Nike commercials, the movie Lolita, and episodes of Twin Peaks and X-Files, among many others.)   Then I saw the credit for the Percy Grainger Duo-Art piano roll used in this performance and I understood. This is a sort of musical time machine in a similar fashion to the Zenph re-performances, the Welte-Mignon piano roll CDs, and the many reissues of other piano roll sources. (The Grieg was the very first piano concerto ever recorded; by William Backhaus in 1909. They had to cut it down to six minutes to fit on the 78s!)

It turns out Percy Grainger was a great fan of the Duo-Art piano roll process and cut many rolls for the company. He also was a good friend of Grieg.  So it was natural for him in 1921 to sit down and cut a piano roll of the Grieg concerto. Grainger also loved the roll editing work – using razor blades and Scotch tape to repair wrong notes or move the holes slightly for  improved accuracy.  Therefore it was not difficult for him to create on the piano rolls (it took three for the whole concerto) an entire transcription of the orchestral score accompanying the solo piano. (He must have punched all the additional holes manually with a special punch, as did Conlon Nancarrow later for his piano roll compositions.) In order for conductor Gupta to sync his orchestra to the specially-constructed Duo-Art player sitting at the keyboard of a Steinway grand piano, it was necessary to create new rolls on which all the holes representing the orchestral parts were covered over with Scotch tape. The Duo-Art player was equipped with a new pneumatic playing mechanism, a computer-controlled roll drive, and a remote control, so that the conductor “could coax Percy into following his cues.”  The concerto is full of fine melodies and has great nobility, and if I can just get its send-up in the “Concerto Popolare” from the Hoffnung Festival out of my head, I can really enjoy it.

There is no cutting of the length of the three movements over the standard recordings, and the impression that Grainger is right there at the Steinway is quite convincing. He throws in a few tricks to heighten the drama which we might not hear in today’s performances.  There is a hint of the mechanical as with most piano roll recordings, and it is more pronounced than usually heard from the more sophisticated Welte-Mignon rolls, but in general this is a fascinating re-performance that’s wonderful to hear in hi-res surround – especially considering the perfectionist 192K resolution of the 5.1 DTS-HD option.  Again, I frankly could hear no difference between the multichannel SACD and either of the 5.1 or 7.1 Blu-ray lossless options, but 2L certainly has all the possibilities covered with Blu-ray, SACD and standard CD versions of the same program. Another departure from the norm here is that 2L has recorded the orchestra in a radial setup around the conductor and listener’s sweet spot – not unlike the Real Surround Sound of the Tacet label.  The piano is front and center, but some of the first violins and all of the seconds are off to the left and right sides, with the violas and timpani in the rear.

Another earlier piano roll player is featured in tracks 4 thru 7 – rolls cut by the composer himself in 1906. They use the Phonola, which also rolls up to any grand piano to play the rolls, but must be powered via foot pedals. It’s a treat to hear Grieg himself play his delightful Wedding Day at Troldhaugen – takes me back to a piano recital when I was a child and the cute red-headed girl who played that piece. The fifth of the solo piano rolls is Percy Grainger again, with a Duo-Art roll he cut in 1919.

The Violin-Piano Sonata is a change of pace from the rest of the program, and a welcome way to close the concert. It’s the best  and most emotional performance of the work I’ve heard, with the higher register of the close-up violin benefiting immensely from the superb hi-res surround reproduction. The piano accompaniment is neither a piano played in the normal fashion nor a piano roll cut by Grieg. It is a set of three 90-year-old non-recorded pianola rolls transcribed from the original sheet music and "performed" by Mr. Lawson.  The pianola rolls have no dynamics, control of the pedals or rubato – this is all added by the "player" as the roll goes thru the pianola. (My thanks to Mr. Lawson for these details.)

– John Sunier

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