Historic piano recordings database goes online

1:51, 18th June 2020

Report by Jeremy Nicholas

Michael Spring, owner of historic piano recordings label APR, has launched a free, comprehensive online database of 78 rpm piano recordings, comprising more than 12,000 entries dating from the 1890s until the mid-1950s.

The vast majority of music recorded during this period was issued on discs made from shellac. In total, the number of commercial classical piano releases (including solo, concerto and chamber music, but excluding accompaniment) runs to 12,267 discs – equivalent to nearly four discs per week for the first 60 years of the recording industry’s existence.

Spring’s extensive catalogue took him four years to compile. Nothing like it has been undertaken since the far-off days of Clough and Cuming’s iconic WERM (The World’s Encyclopaedia of Recorded Music), published in 1950 – and that covered only the electrical recording era from 1925. Spring goes back to the very beginning. ‘Though there is a slightly earlier recording by a popular piano duo of a piece by Anton Rubinstein,’ he reveals, ‘the earliest disc by a serious pianist was Grieg’s Papillon, recorded by Alfred Grünfeld in 1899. As a policy decision, I haven’t included cylinders, piano rolls or off-air recordings.’

Making history: Michael Spring
Michael Spring

The APR database lists composers from Absil to Zuera and pianists from Abram to Zadora. What inspired the project? ‘One of the main sources for APR’s piano releases is the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland,’ Spring explains. ‘Nobody there had ever compiled a catalogue of the complete collection, so I thought I had better do this – not quite knowing what I was taking on!’

Among the rarities unearthed by his research are one Zbigniew Drzewiecki  playing Paderewski’s Polish Fantasy (on Polish Columbia DMX183 recorded in Warsaw around 1933), and enfant terrible Leo Ornstein on two discs for US Columbia in 1914 featuring Chopin’s ‘Black Key’ Etude and Impromptu No 1, Grieg’s Papillon and Poldini’s Marche mignonne. ‘Not quite Suicide in an Airplane!’ says Spring. There is also one by Arthur Rubinstein of Debussy’s
Prélude ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’. ‘He had recorded this in America for a Victor LP in 1953 but then elected to re-record it on a visit to London for HMV (who were still issuing 78s) for the other side of a shellac disc,’ says Spring. ‘This UK Debussy title is the one disc missing from Sony’s Arthur Rubinstein – Complete Album Collection.’

Who is the catalogue aimed at and what is its purpose? ‘I would like it to be of interest to fellow piano nerds and the kind of people who buy APR recordings,
but also for academics who research music,’ says Spring. ‘It reveals what music was being recorded and when, the different pianistic styles, and so on.’

It is also important because the first 60 years of recordings are in danger of being ignored and overlooked. Classical radio stations the world over rarely play any ‘hiss-and-crackle’ discs, fearing that anything below pristine digital sound will offend (and therefore lose) the audience. As a result, there are already several generations who are unaware of the treasures of the shellac era.

Spring was for many years the driving force behind Hyperion’s indispensable Romantic Piano Concerto series before becoming the owner of APR in 2004. He
has gone on to identify and release some of the most valuable recordings of great pianists of the past. This latest initiative is a unique resource that leaves pianophiles further in his debt.


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