Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Parce mihi, O Domine!

The 29th of May, in the Year of the Common Era, 2007, will be remembered as - perhaps - the beginning of the end of classic and classical recordings. OK: that's being over-dramatic about it, but Zenph's "re-performance" of Glenn Gould's astounding 1955* recording of the Goldberg Variations is not the best thing ever to happen to music. The original recording, on the other hand, is probably on the short list for greatest records ever made.

First, the doom and gloom about classic recordings, and - broadly - classical recordings. If some technological wizardry can perform a quick resurrection, so to speak, of Glenn Gould, then there is no sense in young artists bothering to perform or seeking to perform. If a computer and a Yamaha Disklavier can put any great recorded pianist you can bother to name in the concert hall or studio, then what's the point. I'd rather listen to Solomon "perform" the Hammerklavier than Paul Lewis, based on the facts, but then I'd miss out on a young artist with a lot of talent. Classic recordings are more than just the piano notes and dynamics and whatnot, by the way. I could, conceivably, learn the Goldbergs and play them at the same tempi as Gould. However, I could no more recreate Gould's 1955 performance than I could recreate Michaelangelo's Last Judgment. Nothing, not even - in some cases - the artist, can recreate the spark of genius that makes a performance "great," as opposed to "good."

Before I am informed otherwise, I know Gould used studio trickery and editing to great effect. However, he viewed that as part of the art. The fact that he was a virtuoso in his sensibilities of recorded sound and in his sheer genius at the keyboard only makes him more impressive.

Now, the issue of Gould himself. His odd, well, for lack of a better term, vocalise and other mannerisms made him unique as a performer. Glenn Gould seemed to pour his entirety into each recording, each performance. You could tell. You can tell. Who cares if a machine can make and remake Gould's recordings ad infinitum? It's not Gould and you can tell. Furthermore, Zenph has made a binaural recording and mix of the set. Let's let it suffice to say that, "We also recorded a binaural version of the playing. In this technique, two microphones are positioned in the ears of a dummy head, so that headphone playback sounds quite immersive. You’ll be able to hear what Gould heard as he sat at the piano bench, an amazing experience!" (source) No, I'm sorry, but you cannot "hear" what Glenn Gould "heard" as he sat at the bench. I doubt you can "hear" what any great artist "hears" while performing. Why? Well, it's easy: they hear more than instruments and notes. Undoubtedly, they have their concept of the work in their heads, and they're trying to show the rest of us what's going on inside. Gould obviously had a concept of the Goldbergs, and he made no bones about letting the rest of us in on his vision.

Gould gave us the Goldbergs in shiny new digital stereo. As controlling and obsessive (both good things for an artist in this context) as he was in the studio, I am confident that the 1981 Goldbergs reflect his vision of the work as it stood then. Maybe the Zenph technology would interest him, he was in to all that techno-stuff. However, I prefer to let Gould's monumental corpus speak for itself, as it speaks clearly of one of the greatest artists of the recorded age.

I could be wrong, though. Maybe this is a good thing, and maybe I'm out of step. If that's the case, however, then I think we've got bigger problems than an ersatz Auferstehungs-Sinfonie and a time when all the greats are working again, with or without soul(s) as need be.

*By way of a public service, this A.C. Douglas commentary serves as a nice discussion of the two major recordings. I think I've linked to it before, but it bears rereading in this context. Again, I prefer the 1959 Salzburg recording. It's similar to the 1955 record, but it begins to show the faintest hints of 1981. I once said it was midway between. I was wrong, but it isn't a live regurgitation of the 1955 set, either.


Post a Comment

<< Home