RACHMANINOFF: “The Welte Mignon Mystery Vol. XX” = Morceaux de fantasie; Piano Sonata in B-flat minor; Preludes 1 – 6 Op. 23 & Preludes 5 & 12 Op. 32 – Interpretations on the Welte by Hofmann, Horowitz, Borovsky, Igumnov, Maurina, Pintel, Pouishnoff, Roessel and Strecker – Tacet

by | Jun 16, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF: “The Welte Mignon Mystery Vol. XX” =  Morceaux de fantasie Op. 3; Piano Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 36; Preludes 1 – 6 Op. 23; Preludes 5 & 12 Op. 32 – Interpretations on the Welte by Hofmann, Horowitz, Borovsky, Igumnov, Maurina, Pintel, Pouishnoff, Roessel and Strecker (1905-27) – Tacet 204, 66:53 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

A number of different labels have released CDs of stereo recordings of Welte Mignon piano rolls as reproduced today with a restored  “vorsetzer” or complete piano with the mechanism built in.  This amazingly complex mechanical system was invented and perfected in 1904, at a time when acoustic recordings of the piano sounded really terrible. It was capable of a much greater degree of realism in spite of the fact that a few corners had to be cut. For example there was an economy version that didn’t cover all 88 keys of the piano, and volume differences on both systems could only be registered between the bass and treble ends of the keyboard—not between the individual notes in a particular chord. The original recordings used rubber rollers which impressed a line of varying thickness for each note (for volume level) with ink on a paper roll, which was than transferred by experts into punched holes in the final playable rolls, which controlled a vacuum system which depressed the various keys. There was both a “roll up” player with fingers that contacted the keys of any grand piano, and models with built-in mechanisms. It was certainly the best piano reproduction instrument of its time. The sensational invention lasted until 1932, by which time electrical recording and radio had spelled the end of this expensive mechanical wonder. (The Blu-ray of Mahler’s Fourth we just reviewed has as an extra a fascinating video of the Welt Mignon in action.)

Tacet’s chief engineer has engaged the services of one of the leading experts on the historic Welte Mignon system, Hans W. Schmitz, and he has restored the sophisticated player pianos so that they could be recorded in stereo with a minimum of mechanical noise and the greatest realism. (And leaving this whole operation German from beginning to end, which seems appropriate.) Rachmaninoff himself had a fine piano technique and in fact recorded (electrically) all of his piano concerti himself, but he had a deal with the Ampico piano roll company and so never made any Welte Mignon recordings. However, a number of pianists of the period did, and this CD assembles the Welte rolls from nine of them. Jozef Hofman is probably the most famous of them all, and he is heard in only one Prelude: No. 3 in d minor. Vladimir Horowitz cut a Welte roll in 1926 of the Prelude No. 6 in g minor, as well as Nos. 5 & 12 from Opus 32. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata in B-flat minor is played ion 1923 by pianist Paul Strecker.

Fascinating to hear, and certainly a more satisfying listening experience than listening to the primitive pre-electrical recordings of piano music of this period, even with today’s digital noise-control remastering. However, to my ears there is still an overall feeling of a sort of robot-at-the-keyboard at some spots in the music. There are some subtle little details that a live performer communicates at the keyboard which are somehow not here. Still, this is a valuable historical document.


1Morceaux de fantasie op. 3No. 1 Elegie in E-flat minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Alexander Borovsky5:21
2 No. 2 Prelude in C-sharp minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Anatol von Roessel4:12
3 No. 4 Polichinelle in F-sharp minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Leff Pouishnoff3:01
4 No. 5 Serenade in B-flat minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Vera Maurina3:24
5Piano Sonata in B-flat minor op. 36I. AllegroSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Paul Strecker10:41
6 II. LentoSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Paul Strecker7:59
7 III. Allegro moltoSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Paul Strecker9:30
8Preludes op. 23No. 1 in F-sharp minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Konstantin Igumnov2:44
9 No. 3 in D minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Józef Hofmann3:07
10 No. 4 in D majorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Jacques Pintel4:04
11 No. 5 in G minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Vladimir Horowitz3:35
12 No. 6 in E-flat majorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Konstantin Igumnov2:40
13Preludes op. 32No. 5 in G majorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Vladimir Horowitz3:01
14 No. 12 in G-sharp minorSergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)Vladimir Horowitz2:32

—John Sunier

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