This is a complete rewrite of my previous review, which was written in a rush due to my enthusiasm for this product. On reading my review, I realised that in the case of this particular recording and performance, there was scope for providing more information for audiophiles, and also more information on the performances, as there is a historical aspect here, which may be of little interest to some readers, but I am providing this information for those who are interested in finding out a little more about the unique performance.
The first thing any audiophile would want to know is how does this relatively new format rate. Well, to my ears (and my hearing was recently tested very thoroughly, revealing no deterioration as youth has receded -- much to my great delight), this new format is even slightly better than the SACD (the Blu-ray disc is accompanied by an SACD, allowing perfect oportunities for comparison - and my Cambridge player plays SACDs as well as Blu-ray discs), which I had previously regarded as the best audio format. It has that same, smooth, analogue quality that was associated with the SACD, yet seems to be even more open and lifelike than any of the earlier formats. Recordings are mastered at three times the bit rate per channel compared to an SACD. To be precise, sampling rate is 24-bit at 350.8 kHz. This is then quantized appropriately for Blu-ray mastering, and and mastering for the accompanying SACD. The release offers several versions on the Blu-ray. For surround listening, there are two DTS HD versions, and in stereo, an LPCM 24-bit 192 kHz option.
The producers chose to make this an in-the-round performance, with the piano in front, and the Orchestra surrounding you. The sound is marked by its openness, clarity and wide range. If you can cope with being surrounded by the Orchestra, listening to this is a superb experience. And the performance is by Percy Grainger, whom Grieg regarded as the supreme exponent of this concerto.
Which brings to the technology of the performance. The cover is slightly misleading as it refers to a pianola re-performance. In fact the performance, whilst coming from a piano roll (actually, rolls), is from a Duo Art reproducing roll. The reproducing piano, was a development stemming from the original player piano or Pianola. Although these systems, and their non-compatible variants, needed constant careful maintenance, they were capable of reproducing, with extremely high precision, the pianist's original performance. So here we have the opportunity to hear Grainger's performance, as recorded on a Duo-Art music roll in 1921, re-presented in the very best of modern sound on a Steinway piano. And it is at this point, a weakness in this release becomes apparent.
The Duo-Art rolls are played on a version of the system that is contained in a cabinet which sits in front of the piano, with "fingers" protruding to play the keys, and a similar arrangement to operate the pedals. These players are called Vorsetzers, which I am told, roughly means "sitter in front of". This has the advantage that it can be placed at an excellent piano. Many reproducing pianos had the mechanism built in, and often, they were not in the best examples of the piano manufacturers art. After all, a reproducing grand piano cost roughly the equivalent of a medium house! Many recordings have been released with performances from sub-standard pianos, giving ill-founded doubts about the quality of reproducing systems.
The Vorsetzer in this case started its life as a Pianola, and was converted into a Duo-Art Pianola (as they were known for a short time). Although this conversion was done by experts, they didn't get things quite right. I am very familiar with this performance via a Duo-Art piano at the home of one of the world's top experts on reproducing pianos, and his Duo-Art (actually, more than one) was restored and maintained at absolute peak of performance. It is several years since I have heard the roll(s), but a Duo-Art player operating correctly reveals a more dynamic performance by Percy, a greater range between his very gentle playing, and the peaks he reaches in powerful climaxes than we hear in this recording. So, although most aspects of Grainger's playing are presented, unfortunately, the Vorsetzer gives the impression of a slightly more meek performance than Grainger actually gave. However, his playing, and what modern playing and score-reading practice consider his eccentricities (Grieg did not consider any were present in the reading) are still captured beautifully, and I am prepared to give the release the 5 stars because the overall result is so outstanding. Also because, we are hearing, generally speaking, an accurate re-creation of a typical performance of the period. Modern musicians are taught to play strictly to the score. If they were to make a more careful study of performance practice in the Romantic period, it was normal, and even expected, that a soloist would make his performance very much his own, with no hesitation to be free with rubato etc., and even to add extra ornamentation, especially in cadenzas, which often weren't even written into he score but left to the performer. Many concertos contain cadenzas that were not placed there by the composer, but by later pianists or editors.
The appropriately smallish orchestra is unknown to me, but provide an essentially flawless support to Grainger's performance, and allow us to hear the greatest exponent of yesteryear of this concerto in the very best sound possible, even though we don't hear the piano playing quite exactly true to life.
As this review is already too long, I am precluded from commenting on the other tracks, as although they are based on conventional Pianola rolls, in highly skilled hands (or should I say, feet) it is possible to produce a rather lifelike performance. On this recording, we get the very best of such handling of rolls recorded by Grieg himself.
In other words, we have a recording that is both exciting in its new technology, but also in the source of the performances of this popular concerto, and accompanying pieces. There is just one caveat. To appreciate this release, it is essential that your audio equipment is of very high standard. Earlier Blu-ray players, or cheaper units, especially if not connected via HDMI 1.3 cables, may not be able to handle the amount of data being transferred. But if you have a high-performance system, don't hesitate to buy, especially for the rare nature of the content of this release.
Recordings were heard via a Cambridge Audio 650BD player, NAD T785 7.1 channel amplifier, connected with high-quality, high-speed HDMI 1.3c cabling, and using a specialised custom-designed and built speaker system.