Visiting Ravel, Mahler, Artists Galore Through Archive’s Magic Portal

A Welte-Mignon piano from 1908 that reproduced performances by renowned pianists and composers on piano rolls.

PERSPECTIVE – The Internet Archive is a project started in 1996 with the goal of preserving all manner of materials online and granting free access to them. Its current holdings include millions of books, videos, images, software programs, and web pages. And music files, of course. About 14 million of them. To say this collection can be overwhelming is a spectacular understatement. Therefore, it seemed worthwhile to zero in on a small sampling, the recently added collection called Satyr LP (78 rpm rolls cylinders).

As its title suggests, the Satyr LP collection consists of digital files made from 33 1/3 rpm transfers of 78s and piano rolls, with a couple of wax cylinder transfers in the mix. There are 55 records in the collection, published by a variety of labels (none of which are called Satyr; that part originated with whoever donated the recordings). The offerings fall into two main categories: rolls made by renowned pianists and composers on “reproducing” pianos and aria recordings by a dozen or so opera stars from the early 20th century. There are also a few stragglers that don’t fit into these groups but are well worth a listen.

Edward Grieg performed his ‘Norwegian Bridal Procession’ on a 1905 recording made by Telefunken.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the best and most expensive player pianos could handle special rolls that captured the distinctive sound of particular pianists. It wasn’t just a gimmick; the rolls did, in fact, record the efforts of those pianists. George Gershwin, for example, would sit at a reproducing piano, and his keystrokes were recorded as perforations in paper rolls. When fed into a high-end player piano, those rolls would reproduce not only the pitch and rhythm of the music (as all piano rolls did), but also the dynamics and touch of the artist’s performance.

Reproducing Piano Rolls

The two leading publishers of reproducing rolls were Welte-Mignon and Duo-Art, both of which are well represented in the Satyr collection. There’s an album of Gershwin rolls and two by Percy Grainger. One LP presents rolls by several of Liszt’s students. On another, Ignace Ian Paderewski tackles Beethoven and Chopin. And Edwin Fisher is recorded playing Brahms.

But those expected pianistic masters aren’t the most fun to be had in this unusual library. The more you explore, the more these recordings act as a time machine, carrying you back into music history.

Take the Telefunken LP Welte-Mignon 1905: Famous Composers Performing Their Own Works. The first track is Edward Grieg playing “Norwegian Bridal Procession” from his Scenes of Country Life, Op. 19. Richard Strauss performs the “Love Scene” theme from Ein Heldenleben. If that’s not cool enough, jump ahead to Mahler — picture him, hunched over a fancy recording piano, tickling out tunes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the Fourth Symphony. Debussy and Falla make appearances, too.

Maurice Ravel Plays Ravel was an LP released by Everest that includes the composer playing five movements from larger works, lasting about five minutes each. It’s like getting the chance to sit in Ravel’s home studio (in a chair he designed himself, presumably), sipping tea, and listening to him run through some lovely new things he’s written.

Another canonical composer represented here is Sergei Prokofiev, whose Duo-Art rolls were also preserved on an Everest LP. One of this record’s delights is that, after nine of his own compositions, Prokofiev is heard attempting works by his Russian colleagues, including a movement from Scriabin’s Prelude Op. 45, No. 5, two sections of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the Fantasia from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

A cynic might argue that we’re not really hearing these composers play because these aren’t recordings in the modern sense. But the real, live Prokofiev and Strauss played for those rolls, which captured their unique styles better than any other technology of the time.

Vocal Recitals

The other main component of the Satyr LP collection is an array of solo vocal albums, transferred from 78 rpm shellac records and wax cylinders. The singers represented here were once the toast of the European opera scene, but the scarcity of recording and playback equipment 100 years ago allowed them to fade into obscurity, except among the most robust students of operatic history.

Geraldine Farrar recorded a disc in the early 20th century with Caruso and Homer.

The majority of these titles are by sopranos. There’s a disc by Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967), an American singer and movie actress whose devoted fan-base of young women called themselves Gerry Flappers. The LP transfer is on Everest’s Scala imprint. It’s mostly duets, such as “Attends! Voici la rue” from Gounod’s Faust, with Enrico Caruso, and the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly, with contralto Louise Homer. Soprano Claudia Muzio (1889-1936) is featured on another Scala disc. Her hallmark vocal trait was passion, as can be heard in “Ma dall’arido” from Un Ballo in Maschera or “Mi chiamano Mimi” from La bohème.

Léonce Escalaïs (1859-1940, sometimes called Leon Escalais) was a French tenor who spent his prime years based in Italy, where he was known for his Verdi as well as French opera. The website History of the Tenor describes him as “short and dumpy,” but with a voice that made up for his unheroic physique. Without the distracting visuals, his voice sounds pure and sweet, as evidenced on the release from Court Opera Classics. Escalaïs’ “Arrêtez, ô mes frères” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Delilah is a special treat.

French tenor Léonce Escalaïs

Another French singer, baritone Maurice Renaud (1861-1933), trained and began his career in Brussels but by the early 1900s mostly performed in Paris. His recordings were made for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in London and the French company Pathé. He was beloved for his acting ability on stage. In the liner notes on Maurice Renaud Favorites (Rubini), Christopher Norton-Welsh makes the interesting point that Renaud’s vocal acting was too subtle to come through on a 78 rpm; this might have prevented him from having the worldwide appeal of someone like Caruso. The track list includes Wagner, Massenet, and Bizet.

The Satyr collection also offers recitals by tenor André D’Arkor, spinto tenor Fernand Ansseau, baritone Giuseppe De Luca, and sopranos Amelita Galli-Curci, Elena Katulskaya, and Rosa Ponselle, among others.

Instrumental Rarities

Some of the most interesting LPs in the Satyr collection are instrumental recordings that provide surprise after joyous surprise. The randomness of it all is a big part of the fun.

On the Opal label is an assemblage of British artists on 78 rpm, transferred to an album called The Composers Conduct. The usual suspects, like Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Walton, are not in attendance. Instead, it’s Frank Bridge, Rutland Boughton, Julius Harrison, and Hamilton Harty.

Another British artist provides one of the gems amid this pile of vinyl: French horn player Dennis Brain recorded on 78s in the 1940s and 1950s. Why is this album here? It’s the Internet Archive, that’s why! No more logical explanation will be forthcoming. Brain, who during his short life was Benjamin Britten’s favorite hornist, makes his brilliant way through the Mozart Quintet in E-flat major, K. 452, and a movement of the Beethoven Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 17, accompanied by Gerald Moore.

Also meriting attention is Cortot/Thibaud/Casals, a lineup of 78 rpm recordings made in 1926 and 1928 by pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot, violinist Jacques Thibaud, and cellist Pablo Casals. The LP transfer on the Pearl label starts with the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102, with Cortot conducting. He switches to piano for Beethoven’s Seven Variations on a Theme from the Magic Flute. Pianist Nicholas Mendikoff accompanies Casals in a handful of other short works.

Visitors to the Internet Archive can play tracks directly on the website or download them in a variety of formats. The site’s design is clunky and bare-bones, but the audio component of all the Satyr LP entries worked smoothly, and there’s a (frustratingly low-res) scan of the liner notes for most albums. In 2019, the Archive announced its intention to digitize 100,000 LPs, of which these 55 are a small part. The Archive also offers a library of audio and video recordings of live concerts. This is a massive and ongoing — literally endless — project, so you’ll never run out of new music to explore.