Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff

Saturday, February 20, 2010

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.

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Comments [5]

Michael Meltzer

The results have been interesting, not earth-shaking. First of all, your comparison with the 78's is inaccurate. Yes there was a bit of a hiss, once you got past that, the tonal reproduction was remarkably good, especially for piano music. I heard Horowitz live in his prime in the 1960's, and I've heard that remarkable tone reproduced only on quadriphonic tapes and on 78's, never on 33's and never on CD's. The acoustic advantage of the high speed of the 78's superceded most of the improvements in amplification and delivery that accompanied the development of 33's.
Second, there is no such thing as stereo piano recording. Piano tone does not emanate from different parts of the piano, certainly not from different parts of the room. It is distributed to and comes from the soundboard, the whole of the soundboard, whether the tone is high, low, or middle. Stereo differentiation artificially achieved is actually a distortion of real piano sound.

Feb. 25 2010 10:42 AM
Roger Bass from Hendersonm, Nevada

You open your website with a request for contributions BUT
In your Rachmaninoff promo you leave us hanging as to when that feature will air.

You tease us with a playlist that doesn't allow us to plan our listening ahead but only shows what's playing this second and worse, tortures us by a complete listing of what we missed. What kind of sadist do you have for a program director?"

Roger and Orca Bass

Feb. 25 2010 10:41 AM


Selections from the album of the week are interspersed throughout our playlist.

Feb. 24 2010 10:57 AM
William Penn from Merritt Island, FL

This is more a question than a comment. Where in the weekly programming is the Full Rotation program? Please let me know when I might listen to it.

Feb. 23 2010 12:51 PM
Gregg C Levine from Astoria, NY

As it happen this idea is indeed new. But several years ago, the Smithsonian found in its collection piano rolls cut by the composer of his works. And they even had the player piano that cut those rolls.

They also have the instruments, these original instruments, that would have played as a backup to the composer working as a soloist.

So they went and recorded an album called, as is likely, "Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff" so this means we have two in the catalogs. This newer one, and that original.

The museum also did a Gershwin plays Gershwin, since he also did those piano rolls.

I have seen one of these pianos, in the original version of the Manhattan Mall, keeping the stores there company, one of them had a well equipped music store, and I believe at the one in Queens as well.

Feb. 22 2010 01:01 PM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.