Sunday, 14 October 2012

GLENN GOULD plays BACH'S GOLDBERG VARIATIONS / A Zenph Re-Performance in Hong Kong

A Zenph Re-Performance
Lecture-Recital by JOHN Q. WALKER, Zenph Productions
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Saturday morning (13 October 2012)

This one needs a little bit of explaining before hand. The great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) has been deceased for thirty years, so how could he have come back from the dead to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a 21st century audience in Hong Kong? Thanks to the space age technology of Zenph Productions and its founder John Q.Walker and his team, this dream has become a reality.

It was emphasised that what we were about to witness was not a recording, nor a piano roll, but a re-performance on a modern Yamaha grand piano. Gould’s legendary 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations on Columbia Masterworks, all 17280 notes played over 38 minutes, was analysed and dissected down to the microsecond and digitised. The information – how long he played or held on to a note, the split seconds between each note, how hard he pressed the keys, and how he pedalled – was studied and fed back to the modern piano, a Yamaha Disklavier Pro specially flown in from Japan, with its action pre-determined by the use of rare earth magnets or solenoids. So when a piece of music is being heard, the actual keys are being depressed with the actual sounds coming out of the piano. All that is missing is the performer. What is present however is the spirit of the performer (and performance), in more ways than one.

In effect, this is a 21st century updating of what a piano roll and player piano used to do in the 1920s and 30s. However the reproduction of sound in terms of dynamics, colour and range comes far closer to the original conception, with little or none of that mechanical note-grinding that is associated with older technology. Walker’s elucidation of his work is far more eloquent than what I have tried to described above, and so was his analysis of the work as a whole. The 30 variations were based on the left hand sequence of notes rather than the melody of the Aria. Every third variation was a canon, and the others were either dances or showpieces. Bach’s mathematics and counterpoint was also laid bare for his listener’s benefit.

Then the re-performance began, but not without two false starts when the keys moved but not accompanied by sound. This was soon rectified, and the famous Aria was heard, played in the rather brisk pace of the 1955 recording. Whether one preferred this or the later and much slower 1981 version was immaterial; the crisp and detached phrasing and way he dealt with grace notes and trills was unmistakeably Gould. He did use pedalling in this recording, and so the right pedal moved in accordance to the notes. Witnessing this spectacle, it was unnerving to say the least; it was Gould playing the music but he wasn’t there at the piano.

As he had played repeats for certain variations and only in the first half of each, the re-performance went by very swiftly. One marvelled at the clarity of playing, as well as how certain voices came out from seemingly nowhere. That seemed to be a Gould speciality of finding new and unexpected voices. Every listening of the work reveals new vistas, and these were rendered faithfully in this re-performance.

Then disaster struck in Variation No.27, when for a few seconds, action and sound came apart. It was as if the spirit of Glenn Gould had wilfully decided to throw a spanner in the works in a pique of… well, being Glenn Gould. Nonetheless the performance continued to the final Variation No.30, the Quodlibet, and a final statement of the Aria. There was a stunned silence that lasted half a minute, and then applause. For forty minutes or so, we sat transfixed by this miraculous marriage of technology and art, summoned for the greater good of musical understanding.

Was this simply a gimmick? No, because any listening to a performance by Glenn Gould, whether in a recording, or broadcast or a re-performance, is worth its weight in gould …, I’m sorry, gold. I just hope that this new technology – with disklaviers being more easily available these days - does not eventually become musical accompaniment to high tea at The Peninsula.

The following day, John Q.Walker being the perfectionist that he is, had the entire Variation No.27 re-performed, now without any glitch. Except that it now exposes Glenn Gould’s only split note in the entire performance, when he accidentally hits two notes instead of one with his left hand. The older Gould would have edited that out of the final recording, but being a 23-year-old in his début recording, Columbia let that go. The re-performance however left that in, which goes to prove that the great Glenn Gould was human after all.     

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