Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Music

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

All but one of these piano roll-based works by Conlon Nancarrow have previously been recorded, either for Wergo’s composer-supervised 1988 cycle of the Studies for Player Piano or in MDG’s more comprehensive Nancarrow series. However, this release stands out due to the fact that the performances utilize Nancarrow’s own pair of Wendell and Marshall instruments with Ampico reproducing mechanisms.

While Nancarrow’s pianos are smaller than the Bösendorfer and Fischer concert grands heard in the MDG traversals, the harpsichord-like timbre resulting from Nancarrow’s custom designed hammers arguably produces more cogent contrapuntal differentiation and clarity. True, MDG’s engineers minimize the motor noise from the pianos that is noticeable in Wergo’s WDR-based recordings, yet is never bothersome. As a result, the “discarded” Study 45d gains color and linear tension, helped also by a faster, more fluid tempo than the MDG version. The same goes for the first two of the Three Canons for Ursula (written for Ursula Oppens’ human hands, but realized on piano roll) and For Ligeti, which is a reworking of an early jazz-influenced piece.

Study No. 48 presents two independent canons that subsequently are played together as a two-piano piece. Advances in computer technology allow for more accurate synchronization than ever. Because the 1988 recording was limited to the one functioning piano in Nancarrow’s Mexico City home studio at that time, I was especially keen to experience the present “original instrument” upgrade. Yet for some reason the music reproduces nearly a half-step flat! Both the 1988 Wergo and MDG versions are properly pitched.

But the newly discovered Unnumbered Study is a true find. The music provided the basis for the opening section of the third movement from Nancarrow’s Third String Quartet, commissioned for the Arditti Quartet and premiered by them in 1988. The spiraling patterns, hard-hitting trills, and asymmetrical repeated notes benefit from the player piano’s lack of intonation challenges and more pronounced rhythmic drive. Helena Bugallo’s scholarly, informative annotations add further value to a significant release. Recommended on condition that Wergo rectifies Study No. 48’s pitch problem.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Late and Unknown: Works On Rolls
    For Ligeti; Three Canons for Ursula; Studies for Player Piano Nos. 18 (second version), 48, 46, 45d, & 47; Unnumbered Study (canon 3:4:5:6)

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