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It's History in the Playing

New CDs capture Debussy and others performing their work on reproducing pianos.

April 15, 2001|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

Say "player piano" and you are probably thinking of a pizza parlor and the tinny plinka-plinka of mechanical ragtime. Say "reproducing piano" and the response is probably, "What's that?"

Yet the reproducing piano was the high-tech, high-fidelity wonder of early-20th century music recording. Electronic phonograph recording was in its infancy, limited in time and sonic dimensions, while reproducing piano mechanisms faithfully captured the styles of artists ranging from Victor Herbert and George Gershwin to Claude Debussy, Enrique Granados, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

As recording technology developed, sporadic efforts have been made to transfer this legacy from piano rolls to other media, with scant expressive success. Now a new series of CDs is mining this artistic trove seriously. The Pierian Recording Society-Pieria was the ancient Macedonian site where the Muses were worshiped-has released discs of Debussy and Granados playing their own music, and a double-CD set of the legendary Austro-American pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler.

"It has been a labor of love, 43 years of dogged work and listening," says Kenneth Caswell, the recently retired general manager of the Austin Symphony in Texas. It is thanks to his collection, and his persistence and perfectionism, that these historic performances are now available in astonishingly clean and detailed recordings. "I always loved music, and I started collecting old 78s for 5 cents and 10 cents each back in the 1950s. Then I got an old pump-operated player piano and then got interested in reproducing pianos."

Caswell's performances come from piano rolls made with the Welte-Mignon system, invented by Edwin Welte and Karl Bockisch in Freiburg, Germany, and first sold publicly in 1904. Many other systems followed, principally Duo-Art and Ampico in the United States, and were available either as separate cabinets that could be attached to the keyboard of a standard piano or as factory-installed units in instruments from hundreds of makers.

The market was huge and voracious. Mechanical pianos of various types frequently outsold conventional pianos, with more than 100,000 produced annually in this country alone for almost 10 years, until the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Depression virtually wiped out the industry.

The standard player piano used a single paper roll, punched to indicate only note and rhythm. The less-common reproducing systems used two rolls, with many more punches, including notches along the sides of the rolls, indicating accents, dynamics, tempo changes, pedaling and other nuances of phrasing and articulation.

Photographs of Welte's studios show a genteel Edwardian salon with a piano-Steinway or Feurich by Welte's preference. The artist would play the piano, with the mechanism automatically marking the paper roll. Each of the competing systems had its own way of measuring and reproducing dynamics and accents. However, until Ampico brought out a new system in 1929, only the Welte-Mignon system directlY recorded dynamics-varying degrees of loudness and softness-the others added dynamics later.

Some current efforts to reproduce this music are computer-aided, but Caswell prefers a naturalistic approach, as close to the original situation as possible. He records in his Austin home, using vintage Neumann microphones and a painstakingly restored, 1923 Feurich upright that has the string-length of a grand piano and is equipped with the Welte-Mignon system.

"I do it the old-fashioned way," he says. "I do not do any computer stuff. I try to do it as Welte himself might have, using the same model piano Welte used to demonstrate his rolls." Though elegantly simple in concept, this process has proved dauntingly complex in practice. Caswell needed 57 takes from seven copies of the roll to get Debussy's "La plus que lente" just right. There are myriad subtle adjustments that have to be made to account for variances between the recording and the reproducing instruments and different issues of the rolls.

The core of Caswell's personal piano-roll collection comes from the late Richard Simonton, a Toluca Lake collector. Simonton and his wife, Helena, went to Freiburg in 1948 and 1952 to make LP recordings with Welte and Bockisch, using Bockisch's piano rolls. Issued on Columbia, these recordings revived international interest in the material, but were plagued by adverse postwar conditions, including damaged and poorly maintained equipment, fluctuating power and background noise.

"I learned so much from Dick Simonton," says Caswell, 70. "He got all kinds of tips and tricks directly from Welte that were never in the factory manuals, and under his tutelage I got well ahead of the game. I became convinced that these performances could be reproduced accurately."

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