LA Times review 1950
"Great Masters of the Keyboard"
review in Los Angeles Times, 9
courtesy Gerhard Dangel-Reese, Augustinermuseum,
The historian of the future is not likely to have as hard a
time of it as did the researcher who lived prior to the invention of modern
recording devices, both sound and pictorial. Practically every momentous
event of current history is now enshrined on film or tape as it happens,
and for the nostalgic-minded the record companies have already released
such items as Columbia's "I Can Hear It Now" and London's "Prelude to Pearl
Harbor," reliving of all the crises of nearly the last two decades.
But in the field of music really adequate recording does not
extend back far enough to give more than a faint clue to the reality of
the performances of great musicians of an earlier period. Singers fared
best with early recording devices. Though hard to come by, there still
exists records of Tamagno, Piancon, Nordica, Bonci and others that offer
some hint, however inadequate, of what those singers were like.
|Violin Best Suited
Next to the voice the violin was best suited to the old acoustical
recording, but since it was impracticable to record anything but short
pieces of the encore type, only tidbits remain of the playing of Sarasate,
the early Kreisler, Kiubelik and Maude Powell.
Pianists and conductors, of course, fared the worst of all. The
piano tone was so elusive that early records offer little guide to the
actual quality of the playing, while orchestral recording was in such a
primitive state that the interpretations of a Mahler, Safonoff or Nikisch
are almost entirely a matter of written or verbal remembrance.
A new source of preserving the pianistic past, at least, has
lately come to the fore in recordings of hand-played automatic piano rolls.
Allegro Records led the way with two disks devoted to rolls made by Godowsky,
Busoni, Pugno, Carreno and Bloomfield-Zeisler, and now Columbia issues
an imposing set of five LP disks under the title of "Great Masters of the
Keyboard," which enshrines, via rolls, tape and LP, samples of the playing
of Paderewski, Busoni, De Pachman and D'Albert among great pianists, that
of Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Saint-Saens, Grieg, Leschetizky, Reger, De Falla,
Granados, Scharwenka, Richard Strauss, Mahler and Scriabin among composers,
and Nikisch as a conductor also noted for his keyboard skill.
A dramatic story lies behind Columbia's unexpected resurrection
of these ghosts of the past. At the turn of the century a German firm,
the Welte Co., perfected a device for recording on paper rolls the essential
elements of tempo, tone levels, phrasing, dynamics and pedaling of a pianist's
The mechanism was complicated but succeeded better than anything
else that had yet been invented in reproducing the individual character
of a pianist's playing. Each key on the instrument used for recording had
a carbon rod attached which made electrical contact with trough of mercury
beneath the keyboard. The resistance of the contact varied with the pressure
with which the key was struck, and these
varying impulses were transmitted electrically to a recording machine where
they were transcribed upon the paper roll by a delicate inking device.
This master record was then processed for use in the reproducing machine.
|How Device Worked
Unlike the built-in attachments familiar to the American public
of a somewhat later day, the reproducer was a separate unit in itself;
it sat in front of the keyboard and by means of felt-covered levers for
each key transferred the electrical
directions of the roll into playing that was a reasonable, though mechanical,
replica of the original.
This device was in use from 1904 to 1911, and during that period
the Weltes recorded the playing of practically every outstanding European
pianist and composer. After that the phonograph became the accepted means
of musical recording and gradually the existence of the earlier medium
was completely forgotten by the public.
During World War II the Welte factory Freiburg, long since converted
to other uses, was bombed. But the treasure cache of rolls was saved by
carefully wrapping each one and hiding the collection in the barn of a
secluded parsonage in the heart of the Black Forest.
After the war a Californian, Richard Simonton, learned from a
surviving member of the Welte family of the existence of the rolls, which
had been removed from their hiding place and found to be in excellent condition.
Simonton interested Columbia in the idea of recording them, and then went
to Germany in 1948, where he worked at the project with Edwin Welte and
Carl Bockisch, the Welte engineer who had made the original recordings
nearly half a century before.
The rolls were played on the one remaining Welte player
for which they had been made and re-recorded on tape under extremely difficult
conditions. It is this contribution to history which Columbia now releases
on the five LP disks of the "Great Masters of the Keyboard" series.
In some instances the playing has the dead quality characteristic
of the average player piano, but much of it is astonishingly alive and
offers illuminating glimpses of the musical personalities of these departed
Taking as a gauge the only pianist of the group with whose playing
we were familiar, Paderewski in his Minuet in G, the reproduction of his
bell-like tone, the purling, clearly articulated passages and the bouncy
rhythm, is lifelike and unmistakable.
The nine Chopin recordings of De Pachmann are extremely interesting
and probably capture the scintillant quality of his playing, though it
is hard to imagine so great a reputation based upon such erratic interpretative
As in the case of the earlier Allegro recordings of Busoni, that
famous pianist's playing of the Paganini-Liszt "La Campanella,: the Chopin
"Raindrop" Prelude, and the Beethoven-Liszt Fantasia on "The Ruins of Athens:
only leaves a large question mark. The technical facility is enormous though
not overpowering by contemporary standards, but musically it all sounds
angular and unattractive.
Eugen D'Albert playing a couple of his own not very striking
compositions gives the impression of a Horowitz type of virtuosity. Leschetizky,
teacher of Paderewski and other great pianists, exhibits a highly graceful
style in several of his own salon pieces.
Debussy, in five of his Preludes and the "Children's Corner"
suite, lives up to his reputation as the best interpreter of his own music;
one seldom hears [... newspaper clipping ends here]
1. A pool of liquid mercury was commonly used then as an on-off current
switch. No evidence has been found to support the presumption that finger
pressure or key velocity was recorded.
2. Pneumatic, not electric, devices reproduce the commands of the music
3. The inked record accurately preserved the artist's timing and pedaling;
trained musicians then added the commands in the music roll which control
the loudness of the reproducing instrument. Some performances received
more care than others in the addition of these commands.
4. Since this article was published in 1950 many more player units
have been located and restored by collectors.
Notes by Robbie Rhodes
|Original image files:
newspaper clipping, top half columbia_LAT1.jpg
newspaper clipping, bottom half columbia_LAT2.jpg
16 March 2000