Most of us, when we think of the pianola at all, imagine a piano that plays itself without outside assistance. There is one virtuoso, however, whose creative life is devoted to the art of maximizing the playback of the piano roll through careful and judicious use of pedaling and adjusting tempi by hand: Englishman Rex Lawson. Lawson's work is the central focus of Other Minds' The Virtuoso Pianolist, which includes Igor Stravinsky's Les Noces as scored by the composer for piano roll and five other works especially transcribed for the pianola by Lawson.
The main work here, Les Noces, was scored out for Pleyela rolls in 1919 by Stravinsky himself for intended use in a performance of the work in combination with a group of singers and percussionists. When he discovered that, owing to the technology of his day, direct synchronization between the live performers and the roll was impossible, Stravinsky abandoned the concept, but the rolls were nonetheless made to his specifications by Pleyel in Paris. Lawson utilizes these to realize a version of Les Noces for pianola alone, not quite what Stravinsky had in mind, but one to some degree sanctioned by him, as he often listened to the rolls themselves and played them to others, including George Antheil, who a little later composed Ballet Mécanique. Les Noces is a piece that is normally jarring, explosive, primitive, and majestic in its effect, and in Lawson's pianola version it seems even more so. Of the remaining pieces, the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini stands out owing to its length and complexity, but all of the music apart from the Stravinsky is quite pleasant and does not have the crushing force of Les Noces.
Really, this is two albums in one -- those who love Les Noces probably will not even listen to the rest of the disc, whereas others who decide this most aggressive piece of Stravinsky is too much for them may well find themselves most strongly attracted to the other selections. Either way, The Virtuoso Pianolist is a fascinating, challenging disc in terrific sound that will change one's notion about what goes into making a "mechanical" instrument like a pianola truly "sing."