Multi-channel: Roll it out, don’t rule it out.
Although I mentioned in the introduction that this 2L release of piano roll re-performance combined with live orchestra and live violinist is a world’s first for the digital recording industry, it should be noted that such concert performance was not uncommon in the days of piano rolls. Consider the medium the world’s earliest music-minus-one for accompanying singers and instrumentalists.

The first-ever documented application of this happened in 1900 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when pianolist Charles Parkyn partnered violinist Luigi von Kunits in a performance of Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata, one of the very works on this CD. A few years later the British caught onto the American trend more ambitiously. A photograph taken in London in 1904 has documented young British musician Sydney Smith playing the Kastner Autopiano (the British version of the Pianola) to accompany a violinist in a salon. In the same year, the same pianolist Smith performed the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto on autopiano at the St. James Hall of London.

In February 1912, the London Symphony Orchestra performed the Grieg Piano Concerto under the baton of the formidable Artur Nikisch with Easthope Martin, a young British composer seated at the Pianola. If the good old Brits could appreciate piano rolls to such extent, aren’t we sons of the digital age supposed to be more open-minded still?

Okay, they hadn’t heard it on multi-channel SACD or Blu-ray, let alone the unconventional stage layout pioneered by 2L. From the early 2006 award-winning Mozart Violin Concertos to the more recent Treble & Bass, instead of using the rear microphones for hall ambience like everyone else does, the 2L team has always had the orchestra form a circle around the microphones. In this case there were eight of them for the 7.1 Blu-ray, with the LFE mic next to the double-bass. (see stage layout.) To fully appreciate their effort, I took the trouble of temporarily upgrading my 5-channel system to 7-channels - plus my usual paired subwoofers. Switching back and forth between 5.1 DTS HD MA 24bit/192kHz and 7.1 DTS HD MA 24bit/96kHz was just a flick of the thumb on the remote control of my Oppo BDP-83 (red and green buttons respectively). At the end of the day it came down to a choice between higher resolution and fully realized surround sensation. Without doubt, the latter was my preference. The gain in resolution was barely noticeable but the seamlessly coherent surround sensation was dramatically enhanced yet naturally preserved.

Surround sound appears to be quite an absurd notion for a piano concerto. I’ve been a multi-channel SACD advocate for many years yet it still took me a while to appreciate the 2L philosophy. I’m totally convinced that the Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo are best experienced in the 3-channel format they were originally intended for. And the most recent recordings of Mahler symphonies were released in multi-channel SACD for only one reason: lifelike presence. Yet all these recordings are not 'surround' in the true sense of the word. When 2L recorded their Grieg Piano Concerto with an orchestral layout like this, listeners are literally surrounded by musicians 360 degrees. Hey, watch your back, the timpani and four French horns are right behind you!

"Surround sound is a completely new concept of the musical experience. Recorded music is no longer a matter of a fixed two-dimensional setting, but rather a three-dimensional enveloping situation. Stereo can be described as a flat canvas whilst surround sound is a sculpture that you can literally move around and relate to spatially. Surrounded by music you can move about in the aural space and choose angles, vantage points and positions."
With this belief Morten Lindberg and his team are challenging the conventional recording concept of placing all the musicians in front of the listeners who, whether they pride themselves as audiophiles or music lovers, never see what they have been listening to as two-dimensional. Without experiencing the sensation of multi-channel, one would readily scoff at such an analogy. As an unbiased convert who equally enjoys two-channel, all I can pledge for is objectivity. Withhold your judgment until you’ve tried. Even the solo piano tracks on this recording are more three-dimensional on multi-channel. By far.

A word of advice: The usual home theater speaker systems might not do justice to multi-channel music enjoyment since they are usually light on the center and rear channels. The perfect system should have all full-frequency speakers of the same model positioned at the same height. I made a little compromise with Mark & Daniel Sapphire for FL/FR/C, Ruby for RL/RR, Topaz for RBL/RBR driven by four Winsome Labs Mouse and a pair of Thorens-Restek MMA-5 for the Rubies.

These giant killers have very similar specs and deep solid bass to take good care of the timpani on the rear left channel. I’m sorry if I’m making you nervous by constantly reminding you of the timpani rolling around your back. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even aware of them on the first listening. The music making was so engaging and exciting that it had my full attention to completely forget sonic attributes or effects.

I am reasonably familiar with Percy Grainger the composer mainly through his Complete Piano Music series by Martin Jones on Nimbus Records and Music for Piano Four Hands by Penelope Thwaites and John Lavender on Pearl. Apart from his more commonly known folk song arrangements, the most outstanding works are his virtuoso arrangements of other composers’ works -Bach, Fauré, Standford and Foster included. More extraordinary are the often neglected potted version of great piano concertos – Tchaikovsky’s First, Rachmaninov’s Second, and the first movements of the Schumann and the Grieg. The more I listen to his compositions, the more I long to listen to Percy Grainger the eccentric pianist as described in Harold Charles Schonberg’s The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present. "He has a free easy swing at the piano, a superb tone, an effortless and completely natural technique. Naturally his playing had some romantic mannerisms such as a tendency to retard at phrase endings… and of course he was unapproachable in Grieg and his own music. He was one of the keyboard original, a pianist who forged his own style and expressed it with amazing skill, personality and vigor…” Further reading online intrigued me even more:

"Grainger played as the mood took him. Although he could be charming and lyrical at the keyboard, his preference was for a more attacking and forceful style. He could be, as one critic put it, 'as hard as nails'. While not apologizing for his over emphatic manner, Grainger claimed it originated from performing in large halls as a youngster. Nonetheless Grieg, the famous Norwegian composer, felt Grainger’s playing was 'like the sun breaking through the clouds'. He claimed: 'It is a human being, a great soul, an aristocrat that is playing.’'"

How the young Grainger found affinity in the 64-year old Grieg and his music when they met in 1907 was never hard to decipher. They both indulged in the same fiery passion for folk music and pianistic freedom. Incidentally, they both had absolute faith in piano rolls and made numerous recordings. Schonberg’s appraisal of Grainger’s romantic mannerism could well be applied to the re-performance of the four piano rolls made by Grieg in 1906. While lyrically robbing the tempo in Lyric Pieces like "Album Leaf" and "Erotikon" is to be expected, the eccentric rubato and "breaking of hands" in "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen" are unpredictable and unpredictably effective. There are good mannerisms that embellish the emotional appeal and there are bad mannerisms that distort the tempo and misconstrue the musical purpose. Grieg and Grainger definitely belong to the former with their own brand of pianistic pyrotechnics.

While solo piano rolls allowed Grieg and Grainger to make waves and splashes like Free Willy, Grainger didn’t seem to let the orchestral counterpart keep him at bay in the concerto. You can imagine what a challenge it was for Rolf Gupta and the Kristiansand Symfoniorkester to keep up with his emotional ebbs and tides documented in 1921. It’s a miracle that everything is coming together so perfectly as if they have been rehearsing diligently and yet the sparkles of on-stage improvisation are abundant at every turn of the phrase.

The Violin Sonata was a different sort of collaboration between violinist Øyvind Bjorå and pianolist Rex Lawson. The piano roll is an unrecorded roll, meaning it’s a straightforward mechanical note for note perforation from the score and the pianolist has to improvise the expression throughout the entire performance. (In the concerto, which used a computer remastered recorded roll by Grainger, it’s a matter of pushing the start and the stop buttons for each movement.) If you know how passionate Grieg’s last sonata for the violin and piano is, you’ll be astounded by this unreal performance.

I have always thought that the Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires interpretation on DGG 437525-2 was as passionate as one could get but this easily surpasses that. The appassionato first movement and the animato finale are feverishly daring and bold, the middle movement romantically expressive. Fortunately for multi-channel, the violinist and pianolist were placed together in the front to converse in an intimate dialogue.

Superb tonal balance and holographic soundstage have become the trademark of 2L. I find the Pianola re-performing on the Steinway D as vivid and true to the real instrument as any live performances. Between the Pianola technicians and the 2L recording team, they must have found the golden solution to get rid of the pneumatic noise once and for all. The background noise floor is so low that dynamics are free to surge and soar at will. Between Blu-ray and SACD, I find the newer medium noticeably more musical on my Oppo/Winsome Labs/Mark & Daniel system. However, on my all tube, all Klipsch multi-channel system with Marantz SA8260, SACD strikes the perfect balance of resolution and musicality. In either format, it’s a celebration of ancient and modern technologies that music lovers and audiophiles will treasure.

A short note in an email from Rex Lawson provides a fitting conclusion to this review: "It's funny how technology leads one in strange directions. When I was a student, in the late 1960s, I worked as a tape editor at the Decca (London) studios, right at the most modern end of existing audio technology. But as I have got older, I have gone backwards in time to the player piano. Now I edit piano rolls, which are much more ancient. But computers have helped us a great deal with making rolls and our new copies are even a little more accurate than the originals because we can be sure that the spacing between punch rows is correct to a few thousands of an inch. I'm just about to make new rolls for a concerto for Pianola, iPhone and small orchestra by a Venezuelan composer Julio d'Escrivan. I don't know whether anyone has used an iPhone to control computer sounds in real time before - it's good to bring the Pianola up to date.”

Some technologies not only never grow old but strengthen with age. Piano roll is definitely one of them.