June 2007

Bach - Goldberg Variations
Glenn Gould, piano
Sony Classical 88697-03350-2
Format: Hybrid Mutichannel SACD
Originally released: 1954
Reissue Released: 2007

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

We are accustomed to having piano-rolls by the likes of Debussy and Saint-SaŽns recorded on LP and CD in glistening contemporary sound, but this recording is something quite different, described by the North Carolina-based Zenph Studios as a "re-performance." The process "analyzes a recorded piano performance and separates its musical attributes (pitch and duration of notes, velocity of key strikes, key releases, etc.) from the surrounding noise, then encodes those attributes digitally to allow the performance to be replayed on a high-resolution computer-controlled piano [such as the Yamaha Disklavier] Pro."

There’s no doubt about Glenn Gould’s 1956 Goldberg Variations’ being a landmark in several respects, and no doubt about the clarity and presence of this new hybrid SACD, on which the performance is presented twice: once in multichannel, then in binaural stereo designated "The Ultimate Headphone Experience." But for some of us this is bound to come through as somewhat unconvincing -- not because of the actual sound, but because of the way we are influenced by what we know about how it was achieved. Objectively, this is probably unfair, but our fallible psyches don’t often work objectively and thus may allow the "re-performance" to seem to some degree sterile, deprived of the human qualities we associate with gritty LP surfaces and an assuring level of distortion to mark a historical recording as being of its time.

This reaction is a human failing which perhaps ought to be an embarrassment in the face of what Zenph has achieved, but, to my admittedly preconditioned ear, the humanity and depth of Gould’s own achievement seem to be missing here. Perhaps listeners coming to this iconic performance for the first time, uncluttered by a half-century’s familiarity, will receive the unarguably spacious-sounding "re-performance" with the level of enthusiasm that greeted the original release more than 50 years ago. For now, though, I’m keeping the CBS CD mono transfer [MYK 38479].