While this may appear to be a review of a recording released 13 years ago, I promise that the story is much bigger than that. And like Steve Schwartz of Classical Net said, "Given the importance of Debussy's piano music, as well as its popularity, I would consider this release one of the ten most important in the history of recording... You get an equivalent of having Bach play the 'Goldbergs' for you."
The first thing that you need to know about Claude Debussy: The composer as Pianist is that this is a compilation of all his known recordings. And when I say his, I mean Debussy himself. This is Debussy playing his own works. And they are markedly different than many of the most famous interpretations that you've heard before. Listen to Danseuses de Delphes below to hear for yourself.
Now I'm not going to talk about the merits of this album for that is self evident. Nor am I going to waste your time telling you you what I think of his style. But I will say that I find his Préludes to be surprisingly lilting; almost like a precursor of Monk's iconic syncopations. And his dynamic range is drastic and captivating.
I'll also say that I believe that this is a must-have collectors item. In fact, Caswell's entire "The composer as Pianist" collection should be owned by any true audiophile. For who wouldn't want to hear Granados, Ravel, Scriabin, or Casella & Respighi play their own pieces?
The only thing more amazing than hearing the masters perform their own works is actually being able to hear them at all.
And here's where this story really begins. See, we have instant access to everything ever recorded nowadays but for the entire evolution of global culture, music was a phenomenon only experienced live. You had to either make it yourself or know someone who could play. We take this for granted now but recorded music is still a new cultural idea. Music has always been a part of every society. The creation of music is an absolute; it is one of the defining human characteristics. But we're not talking about music creation—we're never talking about music creation when we talk about the business-end of music. We're talking about distribution—about capturing a slice of time and letting people who were not there experience it. And when I say people, I mean as many people as possible as long as it's still profitable.
Interestingly enough, the changes in music distribution that we've seen over the last 10 years in a strange way sort of parallel the music distribution changes that began some 135 years ago. Mass market distribution has always has always been a fight between fidelity and convenience. And while the current argument is about compression rates and streaming platforms, the initial music distribution argument was significantly more exciting. For while all modern music is now played back through one type of speaker configuration or another regardless of the input device, early distribution methods —before loudspeakers were ubiquitous — were much broader in scope and imagination.
Phonographs and gramophones came into existence in the late 1800's. And even though cylinders provided more accurate sonic playback, they peaked in popularity around 1905 because manufacturing discs was easier. Edison, Columbia Records and the other manufacturers were fighting for market share by making minor technological advancements in both the recording processes and in the playback systems but it wasn't until the advent of electrical recording in 1925 that significant changes in fidelity began in earnest for disc records.
Vocal recordings and violins could tolerate the limited range of these early acoustical recording methods but this left very few options for pianists. So instead of trying to recreate the sound of a piano over a home play back system, innovators were cleverly coming up with wildly alternate solutions.
Instruments that played themselves:
The first player piano was first invented in 1895. The technology was far from perfect but it did allow for a completely different form of recorded music. Instead of relying on a record to playback simulated music, the player pianos and their associated piano rolls brought full sounding "live" music into the home. Pre-recorded pieces from world renown musicians could finally be heard without the constraints of space and time. But whereas the original acoustic recordings lacked in fidelity, the initial rolls and players lacked in authenticity. The music didn't feel real. It felt mechanical.
That is, until the invention of the Welte Mignon. In 1905, Edwin Welte and Karl Bockisch showcased the first fully reproducing piano. This was drastically different than its predecessors. The Welte Mignon was capable of replaying the tempo, phrasing, dynamics and pedaling of a particular performance — not just the notes of the music. To quote from the Debussy album liner notes: "The Welte Mignon recording machine captured every detail of the playing of a pianist by marking on two synchronized master rolls each note as fingered by the pianist, the duration of each note, the exact tempos, the dynamic level of each note, as well as the pedaling, even a satisfactory illusion of half-pedaling."
Of course, the Welte Mignon piano rolls needed to be paired with a Welte playback mechanism built into the piano. But when everything was properly tuned and aligned, the results were magnificent. After Debussy sat for this particular "recording" session, he was thrilled with the playback. Here's an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Edwin Welte himself: "Dear Sir, It is impossible to attain a greater perfection of reproduction than that of the Welte apparatus. I am happy to assure you in these lines of my astonishment and admiration of what I heard."
It's no wonder that composers such as Debussy and Ravel sat for Welte recording sessions rather than for the typical acoustical recordings of the day. As for direct comparisons of the techniques, this album includes 14 tracks derived from the Welte master rolls along with 4 acoustical recordings from 1904 in which Debussy accompanied famed soprano Mary Garden. Her voice is outstanding but you can barely hear the piano work.
Down the Rabbit Hole:
And as if all of this embedded history isn't enough to buy the CD right now, the story is far from over. I'm a huge history buff plus I have a soft spot for technical expertise and for passion projects so I'll try to restrain my excitement on this next part and I'll try to keep this brief. But I would love for this part of the story to be the main focus of the discussion posts.
By the 1930's, the Welte Mignon days were over. Advances in electrical recordings had shifted the marketplace. Records had won. Automatons had lost. The ease of record distribution outweighed the fidelity of reproducing pianos. And then came war. Devastation. And more war.
The venerable Welte factory was left in shambles and the Welte rolls were nearly lost to obscurity. Then on an off chance, in the mid '40's, Richard Simonton — founder of the American Theatre Organ Society, reached out to Edwin Welte. He was trying to locate pipe organ rolls. Welte answered that he had managed to save about sixteen organ rolls from the war, which he would exchange for food. He also added that he had hidden some of the original Welte piano rolls in a barn in the Black Forest... If he were interested...
So Simonton and his wife flew to the Welte factory in Freiburg Germany and while there, Richard insisted that they record the remaining piano rolls for posterity. Te results of this "field recording" were released on Columbia as the Welte-Mignon Piano Rolls, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. in 1950. You have to read the LA Times album review here. (And I'd love to hear from anyone who has those original Columbia records.) While recording, Richard watched as Welte and Bockisch made critical adjustments to their playback mechanisms.
Which is how The Caswell Collection series came to be. To quote directly from the Debussy liner notes, "During the 1960's, Dick passed on these valuable technical tips to me, and I have used them to fine-tune and adjust my Feurich Welte piano to accurately reproduce the pianist's playing for this CD series." And so with 2 vintage Neumann KM 83's and a lifetime of expertise and passion, Ken Caswell traveled through time.
From Debussy to Edwin Welte. From Welte to Richard Simonton. From Simonton to Ken Caswell. And from Caswell to each of us. An unbroken chain of past, present, and future.
Mike Dias is a huge fan of music, of telling stories, and of laughing. And lucky for him, he’s somehow managed to make somewhat of living from this. He designs funny and creative apps for the iPhone. He is the music supervisor for Ultimate Ears and he writes about music and the music industry. He’s always happy to talk about artists, apps, and in-ears so feel free to reach out about any of those topics. Email him directly.