A Note from Ward Marston

The records presented here are of such rarity and importance that no archive or private collector possesses them all. The recording of Georgette Leblanc, accompanied by Jules Massenet, is a unique test pressing which was never intended for publication and its existence is practically unknown even within the record collecting community. Mary Garden’s four G&T discs, accompanied by Claude Debussy, and the four extant sides of Meyriane Héglon with Camille Saint-Saëns at the piano are so rare that only two of each have been offered for sale during the last 50 years. While not quite so scarce as the aforementioned discs, the solo piano recordings made by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Pugno, and Diémer are also highly elusive and avidly sought by serious collectors worldwide.

Prized though they are, many of these recordings are disappointing to listen to since they suffer from severe pitch waver or “wow”, most likely caused by a defective governor or drive motor gear. This speed irregularity occurs at about 2.3 times the rotation speed of the turntable and is especially noticeable with piano recordings. Because of the fact that the piano produces steady tones without vibrato, even a slight fluctuation in turntable speed can cause the piano to sound sour and unpleasant. This conspicuous wow mars almost all G&T recordings made in Paris between 1902 and 1904 but is never evident on any G&T recordings made elsewhere. How this problem could have gone unnoticed for over two years is beyond understanding. One possible explanation is that G&T owned only a part of the French Gramophone Company and after 1901, Paris exercised a great deal of independence from the London head office. By the beginning of 1902, the Paris branch employed two fulltime recording experts and presumably, it maintained its own recording equipment. The London office controlled recording activities in most of the other European capitals but obviously, it did not keep a close enough eye or ear on quality control across the channel.

In 1903, the Paris branch of G&T made its first solo piano recordings: nine sides played by Edvard Grieg and 18 by Raoul Pugno. Within the first few months of 1904, the company recorded five sides of pianist, Louis Diémer, and four sides of soprano, Mary Garden, accompanied by Claude Debussy. Sadly, all of these recordings have serious wow problems which makes them difficult to enjoy. For years, I had hoped that someday, computer technology would be able to make these early primitive piano recordings listenable, and now, it has finally happened. Audio engineering consultant, Dimitri Antsos, has developed proprietary software for analyzing and correcting pitch aberrations in recordings. Each recording must be taken as an individual case and the entire process is quite time consuming. Mr. Antsos has taken a great deal of care to restore all of the pitch-defective recordings heard here and the results he has achieved are astonishing. We are most grateful for his skill and diligence.

In June of 1904, the Gramophone Company in London engaged composer-pianist, Camille Saint-Saëns to record a group of solo sides and another group accompanying mezzo-soprano, Meyriane Héglon. The recording session was held in Paris, and because of the celebrity of the artists, the London office decided to dispatch Fred Gaisberg, the company’s chief recording expert, along with newly improved recording equipment, to make these important records. One wonders why the company had not sent Gaisberg over to Paris the previous year to make Grieg’s records. Certainly Grieg’s reputation was equal to that of Saint-Saëns and he should have deserved the same attention. In any case, the Saint-Saëns recordings turned out extremely well with no pitch fluctuation in the piano tone.

Fred Gaisberg left Paris after only a few days and almost certainly took his new recording equipment with him since the French Gramophone Company resumed recording using the faulty turntable. By the beginning of 1905, however, new recording equipment must have been installed in the Paris studio because the wow problem disappears at about this time.

Fifteen years after Saint-Saëns made his G&T discs, he again made records for the Gramophone Company, four solo sides and two sides accompanying violinist, Gabriel Willaume. The piano is well-recorded here and the solo sides especially show the 84 year-old pianist in complete command of his technique. One year and two days later, Saint-Saëns made his final recording playing his “Havanaise, op. 83,” again accompanying M. Willaume. The violin is given more prominence than the piano which sounds quite distant. Yet, Saint-Saëns’s pearly tone and decisive touch are easily discernable. This record was published only in France with no label credit being given to Saint-Saëns’s as accompanist. An examination of the HMV recording sheets shows, however, that the composer did indeed make this recording.