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Classical Music

Three testaments to technical and technological skill


Glenn Gould, piano (Sony)

When it was pointed out to pianist Glenn Gould that his grunts and sighs distracted from his 1955 landmark set of J. S. Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, he said that if the technology existed to eliminate them, he'd use it. Now it does. Thanks to Zenph Studios of Raleigh, N.C., and Sony, we have the Canadian pianist's famous mono recording without grunts or recording hiss -- and, for the first time, with multichannel separation.

That "Goldberg" set was an instant bestseller and made Gould a cult figure at age 22. Bach's keyboard works were then best known from Wanda Landowska's harpsichord recordings of the 1930s and '40s. Gould proved that Bach could be played beautifully and authentically on the modern piano. He eliminated the heavy pedaling and romantic style of older pianists. His playing was precise, clear, and daringly fast. (Gould recorded "Goldberg" again in 1981, in stereo, but the tempos are slower and the mood is philosophical. Both versions were reissued in a 3-CD Sony package a few years ago, "States of Wonder.")

Zenph's engineers took the original Columbia master tapes, converted them to MIDI files, then used their special software to analyze the data -- the duration and sequence of notes, how heavily Gould hit them, how much pedal he used, and even how he lifted his hands from the keys. Wrong notes were left in for authenticity. The digital file was sent to a Yamaha Disklavier Pro, a giant electronic player piano, and recorded in a multichannel format.

We hear Gould's singing line, speed, and accuracy -- his reckless ability to give contrapuntal lines equal weight -- with unprecedented clarity and depth. If there is a drawback, it is that the fast runs are so clean, they seem superhuman. A blur reminds us that the pianist is mortal. But this smoothness could be as easily the result of the digital recording as the Zenph process. Other Zenph-Sony releases are planned of "re-performances" by Busoni, Rachmaninoff, Albeniz, and Art Tatum.


Jonathan Biss, piano (EMI)

For anyone who thinks the younger generation of pianists consists solely of over-trained technicians, meet Jonathan Biss. The 26-year-old American has enormous skill, and just as much heart and brain. In this all-Schumann disc, he takes on the "Kreisleriana" (Op. 16), a collection of fragments with all kinds of deliberate oddities: displaced bass notes, suspended harmonies, and complex rhythms. Schumann often started with a work of literature -- in this case, E.T.A. Hoffmann's story of Herr Johannes Kreisler, an aging composer who can't control his imagination, and his cat, who can be heard scampering over the keyboard in Schumann's last segment.

No one finds this piece easy. Even Vladimir Horowitz's riveting 1985 Deutsche Grammophon recording had numerous dropped notes. Biss moves easily through passages that often end in a tangled heap -- the series of fortissimo chords at 4:30 in No. 6, for example. With his varied touch, fine sense of voicing and melody, and thoughtful tempos, Biss makes it into a coherent narrative. This EMI disc also features the "Fantasie," Schumann's tribute to Beethoven, and the short "Arabeske." EMI's engineers capture a rather blurry piano tone.


Emerson String Quartet and Leon Fleisher, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

Leon Fleisher, the great American pianist whose crippled right hand was freed a few years ago from dystonia (with the help of injections of Botox), has been making a comeback. His lovely 2004 recording, on Vanguard-Artemis, contained gentler works by Schubert and Handel. In this Deutsche Grammophon release, he and the Emerson Quartet climb a mountain: Johannes Brahms's Piano Quintet in F Minor. It is unusual for anyone to play this well at 79, let alone someone who spent 40 years teaching, waiting, and hoping to play again.

Fleisher has always been a "building block" pianist. He looks over the architecture of a piece and starts by laying the foundation. That makes him ideal for such monumental composers as Beethoven and Brahms. (His complete sets of their piano concertos, with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell, from the 1960s, are available on Sony.)

The Piano Quintet is, by turns, an intensely dramatic and a consoling work, and Fleisher's piano shape-shifts to the music: Sometimes it's a bed of granite under the rushing water of the strings, sometimes a jagged outcropping, and sometimes a series of broken chords rippling like spume. In the final scherzo, after the first statement of the furious Hungarian dance, he brings back the melody with a noble tempo and touch.

The Emerson Quartet plays with mature understanding and warm sound, captured in the fine acoustics of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in New York. This double-CD set includes Brahms's three string quartets. These are not his most interesting works -- he did better with five or six instruments -- but all are beautifully played.