A few months ago, at Manhattan’s Yamaha studios, a large black piano stood onstage—minus any pianist—playing what was billed as a “re-performance” of Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The feat was accomplished with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file containing vastly detailed information about Gould’s old record, including such matters as volume and tempo, fed through a Disklavier Pro piano, one of the few concert grands that can play such files.
But why bother? This bestselling record—Gould would rerecord the “Goldbergs” in stereo in 1981—has remained in print ever since it was first published by Sony Classical (now Columbia) in 1956. Why this staged display for a pianist who famously loathed concert performance, retiring at 31 from live recitals to devote himself entirely to recording, films, and radio? The event’s real protagonist, of course, was Zenph Studios, a North Carolina software company, which developed this technology.
Listening to the Zenph re-performance, it is immediately clear that no musician’s fingers are actually hitting keys. The notes may be faithfully replicated in terms of the duration of notes and their intensity, but the physical presence of a pianist is sadly missing. What is a piano without a pianist, except an odd-looking piece of furniture? When Franz Liszt began the tradition of piano recitals in the 19th century, one audience member was heard to ask quizzically, “A piano recital? How can a piano recite?” The question today—thanks to Zenph—becomes “Should a piano recite?”
Sony has signed up Zenph to produce a series of eighteen CD’s, half classical and half jazz. The jazz wizard Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here, a compilation of performances from 1933 and 1949, is next in line to be Zenph’d, followed by recordings by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). Both of these will doubtless offer noisier originals to be cleaned than Gould’s 1955 record, whatever the loss in direct communication of personality may turn out to be.
All marketing surveys show that CD buyers are generally drawn to recent performances with high sound quality, not historically important material. And the Zenph release is clearly aimed at CD buyers who still find the sound quality of Gould’s previous recordings to be too old-fashioned, even when cleaned up by traditional engineering methods for CD. For these demanding purchasers, the best alternative may simply be to choose be a more recent Goldberg Variations: Murray Perahia (Sony; 2000), András Schiff (ECM; 2001), and Pierre Hantaï (on harpsichord, Mirare; 2003), all master musicians, have all produced them. Glenn Gould’s uniqueness apart, he was not the only fine performer to record the Variations, and—although rabid Gouldians may find it blasphemy to even hint as much—his may not have been the best recordings. Posterity will decide.