Great(er) Performances

Long after the live shows, technology improves on seminal recordings.

In 1964, at the age of 31, pianist Glenn Gould gave the last live performance of his career. Weary of playing in public, the virtuoso retreated to the studio until his death in 1982. But this month, Gould reemerges in concert for a new $18.98 CD, channeled by a digital piano programmed to re-create exactly his seminal recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.


The disc is the first in a series of “re-performances” by Zenph Studios, a Raleigh, North Carolina, company that last year signed an 18-record deal with Sony BMG Masterworks. Next up is jazz pianist Art Tatum’s 1933 album, Piano Starts Here. After that, Rachmaninoff. “We saw immediate application to our old repertoire,” says Alex Miller, the label’s general manager. Soon, he says, Zenph’s magic will conjure the work of long-gone orchestras and, eventually, the voices of singers–and make them sound better than the original.

Mining the Music

Zenph’s software sifts through a recording for sonic clues to how the artist performed the music, not just how it sounded. The high-resolution technology can discern 1,024 levels of piano key touch and 256 different degrees of pedal position. The resulting data are captured in a file that’s exported to a digital piano. The software compares the re-performance with the original to catch any differences.

Better Bach

The performance Zenph re-created for its first album was no random choice. Gould’s brash 1955 rendering of the Goldbergs, his big-label debut, took the music world by storm, and remains one of the most popular classical albums ever made. Yet the monophonic recording, marred by tape hiss, holds up poorly.

The Real Thing

Though Gould’s own piano tuner assisted with the recording, and the foundation set up to preserve the pianist’s work has endorsed it, audiophiles disagree about the fidelity of the reproduction. But Zenph president John Q. Walker says separating great performances from their recordings opens up a new world of interactivity between music lovers and long-departed artists. “The performance is sacred,” he says. “But, boy, it can easily be in a different room on different instruments with different recording technology.”

iPod -Ready

The new 76-minute disc includes both stereo and surround-sound versions. A third set of “binaural” tracks was recorded with microphones positioned in the ears of a foam head perched at the keyboard–so with headphones, a listener can hear the music as Gould would have himself. This version will also be available at online music sites such as iTunes.