Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff

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A deceased piano virtuoso plays again in this week's Full Rotation.

The idea of hearing Sergei Rachmaninoff perform live, nearly 70 years after the composer and pianist died, is certainly intriguing. Listen to those 78rpm recordings of his from the 1920s and '30s, and it’s clear that he was a great piano virtuoso who galvanized audiences of his day. But that’s all that’s clear. The color and dynamic range of those recordings is lost amid hiss, distortion and blurry mono sound.

But now, a computer can replay Rachmaninoff’s exact performances--every rubato phrasing, every dazzling run--using a Yamaha Disklavier, a genuine grand piano with a small computer affixed to the underside, which triggers the usual hammer-and-key mechanism on the strings.

This recording is a product of a North Carolina software company called Zenph Studios, which has previously released "re-performances" of Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations, and Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine. In all three, a computer analyzed the original recording, digitized every small parameter, and then re-created it live on a real piano using the Disklavier technology. Strange, and even creepy as the concept may seem, the end result is quite convincing.

This program is a mix of Rachmaninoff originals and transcriptions of works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Kreisler. In works like Flight of the Bumblebee and his own Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Rachmaninoff plays with a lightness of touch and crisp, clean articulations. There’s none of the sort of hyper-emotional pounding that became part of his Hollywood image. The collection is also an interesting view on the mostly lost art of transcription, with Rachmaninoff playing a Bach violin partita and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. With a 1909 Steinway of the sort that Rachmaninoff would have used, the recording is an unprecedented view of the composer as performer. 

Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff
Performer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rca Victor Red Seal 748971

Available for purchase at Arkivmusic.com

Listen to an interview with Zenph president John Q. Walker on WNYC's Soundcheck.