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MMD > Archives > November 1998 > 1998.11.01 > 21Prev  Next

Was the Rachmaninoff Ampico CD "Conjured"?
By Craig Brougher

After reading Wayne Stahnke's comments in the booklet which comes with
the Rachmaninoff CD, I didn't think that anybody could try to make
people believe that they were "conjured" from adjustments faked to the
"striking" from old Victor records.  I was wrong.

Both Doug Henderson and a friend of his have made this accusation.

We should discuss two things here.  Attack and tempo.  Let's talk
tempo, first.  When we say that Rachmaninoff's tempo was absolutely
perfect all the time, that he never ever changed it, what are we
speaking of? 1% variance? 5%? 10% variance?  After all, nobody's
"perfect." Rocky was good, but he wasn't THAT good.  If, throughout
the "perfect" execution of a number having 5-10 changes in tempos, he
was able to maintain an overall end point accuracy of 10%, he was a
phenomenon.  (Question: Is an ongoing phenomenon a phenomenanonanon?)

Doug quoted a friend of his who believes the following:

"The disc recordings were more accurate because they prove that the
artists actually WANTED to play the pieces faster than they did on the
rolls.  All of that talk about the disc recordings being faster because
of time limitations was not true."

In other words, this gentleman has said that the Victor records should
be the standard we go by in regard to tempo considerations.  Fine.
Next, he says this:

"Fortunately for those interested in accuracy and fact, there are
innumerable instances of extant written biographies and histories of
artists and phonographs leaving NO DOUBT that disc-recorded selections
were literally butchered and truncated and often played at absurd
speeds to fit them on a 10" or 12" record.  _That is fact._"

So, which is your fact, fellows?  I suspect you have none, since you
have done a perfect 180 and reversed your last paragraph.

Now let's get down to brass tacks.  A tempo adjustment of 10 seconds in
219 seconds is roughly 4%.  I challenge any musician who worries about
that much to go see a doctor.  He has problems unrelated to music.  He
should be picking the nits off his cousins.  I hope I never hear
somebody say, "and therefore, it isn't really Rachmaninoff!"

Where did I pick up this 4%, you ask? Well, that's the overall time
difference between the tempo that Rachmaninoff played the Polichenelle
between the CD and the Victor record.  I adjusted the speed of the
record to play exactly on pitch (key of D) and timed from the first
note struck -- not the beginning of the recording grooves -- to the
next quarter-note beat after the last note was struck.  Is that okay?
(If not, just please go away quietly.) Yes, it was played 10 seconds
faster on the record.  "Hmmm, Must be dem dere sluggish Ampico actions
an dem dere lousy rolls we a-compasatun' fer, dere."

Or on the other hand, maybe ol' Rocky wasn't that concerned about
the tempo marked on the roll, because he knew, (As Julian Dyer wisely
noted) we can adjust that to suit!  Gosh, I wonder if Rachmaninoff knew
that his music could be "destroyed and mischaracterized, and utterly
perverted" by somebody who thought he knew better, and decided to slow
him down? I can see it all now: "The resident expert adjusts the tempo
slider up 5 and the women faint, while the men stand up and loudly
protest...  No, wait a minute: I think today it would be the other way
around!  You know, those 1998 ears?  (I am holding my 1998 nose!)

How many times in the world have you seen a player roll with a tempo
of "93.3756" marked on it, by the way?

Sorry, but with a player piano, tempo is the world's _mootest_ point!
And frankly, so is an overall 5-10% variance between performances.  In
my opinion, it's total nonsense.  I dare the world's foremost artist to
get that close repeatedly.  Try it on a 4-5 minute selection sometime
and see how many seconds you time out to from year to year.

Now what about attack?  Doug and his friend say this:

"The Ampico rolls were used as a "base" and the old Victor audio
recordings were then used as an interpretive augmenting device. "

Well, if you read the "liner notes" about the CD, that technically
isn't so.  I would not accuse Wayne of "fudging" anything about the
Ampico rolls.  That doesn't mean he can't pick up some helpful tempo
information by listening to the Victors, does it?

Remember that little tempo lever?  And he may have had some other
problems with natural acceleration on the roll, since his own roll
reader won't accelerate like the Ampico spool does, so his playback
would slow down a bit toward the end of the roll.  That requires more
compensation to make it play up to tempo all the way through on rolls
before about 1926.

None of this even remotely resembles the remark I read: "The recording
is a collection of Rachmaninoff and Stahnke 'duets'."  That's a slap
across the face -- very presumptuous in my opinion, and very wrong.

I restored A Chickering 9'6" stage piano that traveled with the Ampico
Comparison Performance Troupe in the 20's.  And I can tell anyone who
wonders if those original instruments were anywhere close to Wayne's
Electronic marvel, that yes, they were.  New York art critics were
awed.  So was the rest of the country that went to hear these instru-
ments in person.  The dynamics, striking, attack, everything is all
there (on good rolls), _and_, you get to change the tempo as often as
you like!  (Somebody definitely knew what they were doing!)

I later heard that instrument finally, in a large building, similar to
a concert hall, and I didn't ever want to leave.  All I can say is, it
was absolutely stunning.  "In person" is twice as good as on CD.  It's
thrill!  What else can I say?  And once you've heard a Rachmaninoff
roll play on an Ampico concert grand with its huge dynamic range built
in a large hall, and then hear Wayne's CD, you will definitely have no
more doubts.  This performance is not a faked, tweaked, adjusted "duet
between Rachmaninoff and Wayne Stahnke."

Wayne has been able to disappear, after all his technology is in place,
and let the rolls speak for Rachmaninoff.  What you are listening to IS
Rachmaninoff, and that is the way Rachmaninoff himself knew that he
would sound to our generation!  He wanted to play the piano for us.
That is why he was so exuberant when he rose out of his seat and
grandly pronounced, "I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself
play."  (And yes, Mr. Wagner, you are welcome to quote me on that!)
Not so strangely, he was never awed by Victor Record Co. nor did he
ever make such a comment.  Instead, he endorsed the Ampico, and to
make sure we would know that, he recorded 6 pieces on the Ampico that
he obviously did not want to give the Victor Co.

As John Tuttle wisely observed, that kind of an endorsement is
a "no-brainer."

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Sun 1 Nov 1998, 15:26:01 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ampico, CD, Conjured, Rachmaninoff, Was

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