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Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc. (Read 3043 times)

Offline commissiona

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Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
« on: February 09, 2012, 06:37:04 AM »
Hello,


I've been thinking about pianolas (player piano, autopiano, etc) lately because I've been listening to a lot of Rachmaninoff in the past few days, and in listening to so much one wouldn't be surprised to come across his piano rolls, his own performances reproduced from a pianola.

Upon listening to his and others like Mahler and Joplin, they sound fine to me, and I don't really get the feeling that I'm listening to anything syththetic.  I was wondering, however (as if you don't see where this is going  ;)), how authentic are they really in being sort of windows through time as I don't know much about them.

I think they are very interesting in that they could give us a very clear glimpse of a past composer's own interpretation of his own work, but at the same time I wouldn't be terribly dissappointed if they are known to not truely capture the essense of the original performance.  

Also, don't get me wrong, as in many cases a professional musician can interpret a work better than the composer himself, anyway, which is especially true when it comes to directing an orchestra.  

However, I do like authentic performances just as much as the next guy, so I'm just curious as to what other listeners think of these reproductions, or if anyone here has any experience or knowledge of pianolas and know how well or not they're able to capture the all the nuances of the performer.


Good Morning
Haydn: Sonata in C No. 35
Scarlatti: K. 1, 380, 443
Blasco de Nebra: Sonata V
Handel: Fantasia in C G.60
Couperin: La Reville Matin
Rameau: La Dauphine
Pachelbel, Trabaci, Frescobaldi: Various

Offline j_menz

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #1 on: February 16, 2012, 01:20:19 AM »
I used to have a pianola, and have some experience with them.  The roll determines the relative length of the notes. The "player" controlls volume and tempo and can also add extra pedalling.  The pianola itself is (usually) an upright, trying to reproduce a (presumably) grand, so tone will be different.

They're interesting, but not as good an indication of the original than even a crappy recording.

Incidentally, it is possible to edit piano rolls prior to release (lots of popular music one's were) to add notes, remove wrong notes, etc. Not sure if Rachmaninov ever needed, or was tempted, to do that.
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline commissiona

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #2 on: February 16, 2012, 07:35:10 AM »
Thank you, j_menz,

Very interesting that you used to have one, sounds like that would be a fun toy for a short period of time! Itís also good to have a better idea of what exactly I'm listening to.  

And, you know, that didn't even cross my mind once, that these reproductions are mostly going to be on uprights.  I'll have to go back and listen to my recordings again to see for sure, but I certainly didn't catch that on my first few listenings.

I suppose the reason I bother rustling up such a dry topic in the first place is my curiosity for interpretation, and whatís more interesting than a composerís own interpretation of his own work?

Interpretation of recorded solo piano music is something of a recent inquest for me.  I'm great with orchestral, but typically whether I'm listening to Brendel or Ashkenazy play Beethoven sonatas didn't really makes much of a difference to me.  I'm mean they're both very accomplished, and they sound 'fine', right?  They better be since I blew $40 on the boxed set!

Well, it certainly makes a difference, and a big one sometimes.  I've largely ignored Mozart Sonatas for a while until I came across Eschenbach's recordings of them.  His detail to every note, delicacy, are overall very ĎMozartianí feel and such care made me fall in love with these works; I just wish he did the same for Haydnís keyboard stuff before he took the baton.  Those two whigs plus Vanhal and Dittersdorf used to play string quartets together on at least one occasion, imagine if recording was around then!

Anyway, Iíll have to stop myself there so I donít get too off topic.  

So everything you said makes sense, intuitively one may come to the same conclusions by simply taking a look at the mechanism itself responsible for such an immense task of reproducing brilliance:



...see what I mean, literally holes punched through a piece of paper, so I guess one can't expect too much; but thatís OK, scratchy 90 year old recordings are allright if I want to listen those composers play their own compositions.

Again, I appreciate your input this as you probably had to dig back a few days to find it, see you around!
Haydn: Sonata in C No. 35
Scarlatti: K. 1, 380, 443
Blasco de Nebra: Sonata V
Handel: Fantasia in C G.60
Couperin: La Reville Matin
Rameau: La Dauphine
Pachelbel, Trabaci, Frescobaldi: Various

Offline commissiona

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #3 on: February 16, 2012, 07:40:07 AM »

Incidentally, it is possible to edit piano rolls prior to release (lots of popular music one's were) to add notes, remove wrong notes, etc. Not sure if Rachmaninov ever needed, or was tempted, to do that.

Well, hopefully and I would imagine he had better things to do! :D
Haydn: Sonata in C No. 35
Scarlatti: K. 1, 380, 443
Blasco de Nebra: Sonata V
Handel: Fantasia in C G.60
Couperin: La Reville Matin
Rameau: La Dauphine
Pachelbel, Trabaci, Frescobaldi: Various

Offline j_menz

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #4 on: February 17, 2012, 01:06:50 AM »
Additional couple of things I remembered:

1 - the control of volume is VERY limited - all the notes playing at the same time get the same force.

2 - I did once see a concert performance of Percy Grainger on a sort of pianola contraption that played a concert grand.  I believe that the "recording" was done on a more sophisticated machine than the usual pianola rolls and that more nuance was recorded.  I thought at the time that it was more gimick than anything else, and God alone knows how much the thing costs.

Quote
sounds like that would be a fun toy for a short period of time

It was.  Interestingly, not everyone could make it work. You basically just have to pedal (how hard impacts the volume), and it's not like you have to have any great strength, but some people couldn't make it work at all. I never could understand why.
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline pianolist

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #5 on: May 27, 2012, 05:30:58 PM »
Good to see some interest in the player piano, but perhaps I might clarify one or two details. If you heard Grainger playing the Grieg, and you don't live in the Antipodes, then I will have organised the concert. You will find many other posts from me on this forum, though I have been silent for rather a long time. We took our Duo-Art Pianola to Norway a few years back, and Grainger's performance is now on CD, accompanied by the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rolf Gupta.

Reproducing pianos are not especially restricted in dynamics, and certainly not as restricted as many of the younger generation of pianists, who, thanks to the ubiquitous piano competitions, tend to play very uniformly and accurately, but without the emotional sensitivity or variety of their predecessors of a hundred years ago. Indeed we live in an emotionally challenged world, where I regret that audiences increasingly go to concerts to watch, rather than to listen. That's why conductors and pianists who wave their arms around a lot, or who make big eyes at the TV cameras in deference to their perceived beauty of their own playing, are generally more successful than their more restrained counterparts.

It's not true that all the notes playing at the same time on a reproducing piano are actuated with the same dynamic force. The mechanisms are split into two main sections, for treble and bass, with two separate dynamic channels in parallel. The dynamic variations can be very fast, too, and given the style of playing from a hundred years ago, which was was far less rigid than it is today, especially in the matter of tempo rubato, then there was very little loss of fidelity, and certainly rather less than that caused by the horns and soundboxes of pre-electric gramophones.

Why would you think that perforated paper would be an insensitive medium? You probably haven't really thought about it in detail. The sort of roll you have illustrated is not from a reproducing piano in any case, but from a normal player piano. It's the main theme from The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, on an old 65-note roll. Rolls for the normal player piano were not originally designed for reproducing someone else's performance. It's a modern fetish that people like to listen only to other people's renditions. Back in the 1900s what many of them wanted was to make their own music, but without the need for pressing the keys by hand.

If you don't understand why it might take years of experience to play sensitively on any instrument, player piano or otherwise, then what do you think music making is about? If all there is to the piano is accuracy and speed, what point is there in listening to human beings? You might just as well have a computer do the lot and stick to gin and tonic. But of course accuracy is only a mechanical building block. It's the subtlety of interpretation that makes the music, and that is just as difficult on any instrument. That takes all sorts of human qualities, not the least of which is humility, in my view, which is why so many rather well-known pianists fail to appeal to my taste.

Anyway, I should give you a couple of audio examples, shouldn't I?

To demonstrate the contrast between an atrociously regulated and played Pianola, and a reasonable one, I choose first, a YouTube clip from something calling itself the Prichard Collection. There are several in the series, and this one is pretty representative. It's awful, and the man pedalling hasn't a clue what he is talking about:



The player talks of using subduing levers as though they create accents, which they don't, and in any case he fails to create any accents at all. He states that one should pedal uniformly, which is rubbish, and by dint of pushing his two favourite levers across with the wrong hand, he manages to turn them into a sort of soft pedal, so that the music is churned out at roughly two dynamic levels, forte and mezzoforte. The piano needs both tuning and toning as well! It's a travesty of a wonderful instrument, but it's on YouTube, so everyone tends to believe it must be true.

The other example risks suggesting that I am, like many of the pianists whom I have castigated, lacking in humility, since it comes from a concert I gave last autumn. Oh well, I daresay my friends will vouch for me. It's exactly the same sort of metronomic roll as in the YouTube example, but in this case it's the Rachmaninov Prelude, Op. 23, no. 4. It's not perfect - nothing in life ever is - but I hope it will show you that the normal player piano can be played sensitively. I'll attach it at the foot of this posting.

You'll find a few examples of good reproducing pianos on the Pianola Institute channel on YouTube, but it's like crying in the wind, since there are so very many bad examples which get all the attention. Life is like that, and if you really want to find the truth out about stuff, you have to dig for a long time.

Recording rolls for reproducing pianos is a subject that could fill many books, since there were so many varieties, all of which did it in different ways. I'm currently in the middle of writing a series of articles for the Pianola Journal, on Dynamic Recording for the Reproducing Piano. Alas, the musical and musicological world is atrociously ill-informed about player pianos, and I more or less despair of being able to get the message across. I can't think of any other instrument that is so widely misrepresented and misunderstood.

By the way, before I went to university in the autumn of 1967, I spent a gap year at the Decca Record Company, mainly editing classical recordings on tape. If you think piano roll editors were the leaders at such corrections, think again! Absolutely every CD and LP is edited to remove wrong notes, and indeed far more than most piano rolls, in my experience. I remember that one of the editing engineers worked out that Decca's 1960s version of Tosca had an average of one tape edit every four seconds. Even then they could occasionally add top notes missed by a soprano, but how about the Saint-SaŽns Third Symphony with the Berlin Phil and the organ of Notre Dame. That's music made in different countries, edited together by engineering wizards. By those standards, piano rolls are a model of authenticity!

Best wishes to you all.

Yes, it's the 10,000th member ...

Offline pianowolfi

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #6 on: May 27, 2012, 05:35:12 PM »
Wowwwww, pianolist, you back? Super duper!  :) Will listen later!

Offline j_menz

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #7 on: May 28, 2012, 01:01:28 AM »
@ pianolist: I do live in the Antipodes, so I guess it wasn't you.

Other than that performance, I have no experience with the reproducing piano or it's capabilities, and my comments above should only be read as relating to the player piano. This would seem to be more common.

"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline pianolist

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #8 on: May 28, 2012, 05:13:53 PM »
Well, dear j_menz,

My calling them the Antipodes is a sure sign of my lack of humility, since they are only the Antipodes to me, whereas to you that is exactly where I live. If I want to get my Australian friends to bristle, I call them the Colonies!

Anyway, we both know what we mean. The musical examples I gave above are indeed both of the normal player piano, not the reproducing piano. Admittedly I had a very nice Steinway B in front of which I could place my Pianola, but one really shouldn't use inadequate pianos for publicly available recordings. People do, alas.

Living where you do, you will have heard a Duo-Art push-up belonging to Denis Condon, and created by him and Peter Phillips, who was over here visiting a couple of weeks ago. That was back in the 1980s. When we recorded the Grieg three years ago in Norway, we had the advantage that roll-copying technology has improved greatly over the years. Grainger's recording was only publicly issued in a version with the orchestral accompaniment added to the roll, as a sort of duet. For playing with orchestra, one has to remove the extra music and re-perforate. In the 1970s and 80s that meant covering holes with sticky tape, and using copying perforators that read the edited rolls pneumatically. There were some really heroic efforts at achieving accuracy, but they couldn't compare with optical scanning and computer analysis, so nowadays our copy rolls are if anything slightly more accurate than the originals, which were perforated on machines with chain driven grippers that pulled the rolls through from punch row to punch row. With stepper motors we get a more exact spacing between rows - one can't hear the difference, in fact, but it impresses the computer geeks! What does make a real difference is the use of a stepper motor for pulling the roll through in performance.

If you want to be reminded of Grainger's performance, there is a 2'30" example in stereo on a Polish CD-selling website:

www.ccd.pl/sample/2L60/01.mp3

Otherwise, the Norwegian recording company, 2L, which produced the recording, has shorter excerpts from all the tracks, which include other roll stuff as well, at its online shop:

http://www.2l.musiconline.no/shop/displayAlbum.asp?id=37231

Best wishes from a rather hot London, with the Olympics getting horribly near - ugh!
Yes, it's the 10,000th member ...

Offline j_menz

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Re: Player Piano Reproductions of Rachmaninov, Mahler, etc.
«Reply #9 on: May 29, 2012, 01:03:41 AM »
Living where you do, you will have heard a Duo-Art push-up belonging to Denis Condon, and created by him and Peter Phillips, who was over here visiting a couple of weeks ago. That was back in the 1980s.

That sounds about right.

Incidentally, we no longer mind being called the colonies. We just mention the weather, or the cricket, or the economy, or....

The Olympics won't be as bad as you fear. I lived in Sydney during the 2000 version, and it was actually quite pleasant.  Just don't leave the house.  ;D
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant