Where old piano performance lives Archive: The University of Maryland is home to priceless classical piano recordings, and a little jazz.

December 07, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

No banners hint of the treasures crowding the International Piano Archives' shelves. Nothing says, "Stop, linger, listen."

You could walk by and never know you're passing one of the world's great collections of classical piano recordings. Maybe that's because of the location.

Shrines to high art are usually found in New York City, or Vienna, or Paris, not College Park, Maryland. Yet, here you'll find everything from the sheet music Russian virtuoso Anton Rubinstein used on his 1872 tour of the United States to the 70-year-old piano rolls of Josef Hofmann, who is considered by many the finest classical pianist of this century.

The size of the archives is staggering: 10,000 discs from the 78-rpm era; 25,000 long-playing records, 9,000 compact discs, 2,400 reel-to-reel tapes of concerts and radio broadcasts. Think of this as a Cooperstown for classical piano fans.

Most visitors, however, are scholars and professional musicians, people already in the know. Still, those who can't tell Tchaikovsky from Stokowski, or who think a Sonata is a car made by Hyundai can explore the world of those who have given their lives to the classical repertoire.

You can begin with the piano rolls, once the collection's heart and soul. The archives has 8,000 rolls, each tucked into a box dating from an age long past. Here and there a jazz piece can be found, Fats Waller playing "Alligator Crawl" or Jelly Roll Morton doing "Fat Francis." The rest are by classical pianists, remembered and forgotten.

At one time, the rolls rivaled 78 rpm discs in popularity and far surpassed the old platters in sound quality. A 1920s record was simply no match for a Steinway player piano.

"In the early days of the Victrola, the sound of the piano was pretty [poor]. The piano sounded like a banjo in the distance," says Don Manildi, who came to the archives five years ago as its curator. "But with the piano rolls, you could put it into a good piano and you are there."

To demonstrate, he feeds a roll by Sergei Rachmaninoff into one of the archives' player pianos. In an instant, the piano comes to life. You can imagine the great virtuoso sitting at the keyboard, nimble fingers flying through "The Flight of the Bumble Bee."

Experts and audiophiles argue over the accuracy of piano rolls. The sound can be robotic, lacking the richness and texture of the actual performance. Still, many pianists, including Rachmaninoff, approved of them and worked with technicians, engineers and editors to present the best performance possible. Improvements in recording technology eventually made the rolls obsolete as the scratchy 78s.

The archive hopes to preserve the rolls by converting them to digital format, says Manildi. A nine-foot Bosendorfer-290SE concert grand has been equipped to act as a player piano that will capture the old performances down to the most minute details. The project will take years to complete.

The archives, begun in 1965, once consisted solely of piano rolls. Its founders, Albert Petrak, a Cleveland, Ohio, record shop owner, and Gregor Benko, one of his employees, heard that about 3,000 piano rolls were being sold. The collection belonged to an editor of the Aeolian Duo-Art piano roll company, which had been out of business for years.

Petrak and Benko tried to find an institution interested in buying the rolls. When none came forward, they formed the International Piano Library. This time they found a benefactor who bought the rolls for $5,000, then donated them to the library.

Within a few years, Benko moved the collection to New York City. There he developed a network of patrons, pianists and artists such as opera star Beverly Sills.

"I was doing marvelous things and building a marvelous collection, but often I couldn't pay the phone bill," says Benko, 58, who now lives in Freeport, N.Y.

By the late 1970s, the collection needed an institution with money and clout. Enter the University of Maryland, College Park. The archives arrived in 1977 and since then has become world renown in the field of classical piano.

Professional pianists stop by to peruse the 9,000 scores or listen to recordings to study the performing styles of past masters. Fans glean bits of knowledge and insight on favorite artists. Post-graduate students find invaluable biographical information for dissertations.

Manabu Ken Takasawa, a lecturer in piano performance at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, spent countless hours at the archives preparing a biography of Abram Chasins, a pianist, writer and teacher. He pored over out-of-print scores and other papers Chasins' widow had given the archives.

"It's just an amazing collection," says Takasawa, 34. "It's probably the only kind of archives that specializes specifically in piano music."

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