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Bach: Goldberg Variations
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In the summer of 1955, a brash, eccentric, and awesomely gifted 22-year-old pianist swept the didactic cobwebs off this monumental opus, and a star was born. For listeners weaned on romantic Bach stylings of Fischer, Casals, and Landowska, the effect was like stepping into an ice cold shower. Glenn Gould's agile, independent hands and hair-trigger rhythm ignited Bach's virtuosic writing with insight and irreverence, sprucing up the counterpoint with crisp articulation, perky accents, and jaw-dropping tempos. This debut recording is the best-known and arguably the finest of Gould's commercial discs. Buy it and hear why. --Jed Distler
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Sony Great Performances: This 1983 remastering features OK sound overall for a 1955 mono recording, based on my experience with classical recordings from the mid-50s. There is some distortion (noise) in treble, with thin bass. Gould's singing or vocalizing seems to have been equalized out to an extent. The sound is generally tinny. It isn't unacceptable, but isn't very good either.
Audiophile Classics 2012 remastering
This release represents a recent European remastering of Gould's original session with smoother sound than the 1983 remastering. Interestingly, Gould's vocalizing is more pronounced. The largest benefit comes from a much richer midrange. There is much less distortion in the treble, without it being eliminated, but the sound is somewhat closed in. Outright noise is sporadically present like in the higher register in Var. 22. Different settings have been used to remaster different variations. The long and elegiac Var. 25, surely one of Gould's great inspirations, for example is left with a lot of tape hiss, which I presume was done so as not to interfere with the treble sound - a good decision based on how riveting the result is. The bass is much better than in the Sony 1983 remastering but still isn't great. Given the affordability of this Audiophile Classics release, there is simply no reason for anyone to listen to the Sony releases, which are significantly inferior.
Best sound but re-performance has issues
Zenph 2007 remastering
This is an entirely different animal from the Audiophile Classics and Sony releases. It is a re-performance, not a remastering. Zenph, a North Carolina music technology firm, uses a special Yamaha Disklavier piano fed with digital files to actually replay Gould's performance. This re-performance is then tested against actual Gould recording in real time to make sure they are exactly the same. Zenph actually hosted a posthumous Gould "performance" in Toronto in 2006 using this technology. The disc contains multichannel and 2-channel version, both in SACD (DSD) and redbook CD (PCM) form. My listening was done on the CD layer of the 2-channel form. Using the best in modern technology, this recording is done in state-of-the-art sound. No background hiss, no vocalizing, wonderful soundstaging. Interestingly, I still found the bass to lack some tonal differentiation. But this is a terrific modern recording.
Additional comments: I kept listening to the Zenph after first publishing the review and have concluded that it is NOT faithful. The liner notes document how carefully the re-performance is matched up against Gould's original session. I am sure a lot of work has gone into but I am skeptical that the match is close enough for careful listening. The range of tonal shadings presented by the Disklavier does not match the different sounds produced by a good professional pianist, let alone one with exceptional ability in this respect like Gould. The bass sounds particularly uniform. Moreover, there are sound events - notes separated by tiny intervals of sound -- in several places of the type that are not produced by humans. (Note that I play the piano.) Humans are able to pick up pretty small differences in timing and tone color and I don't think the Zenph meets the threshold. I'll also point out that I didn't experience the sense of excitement and freedom that I normally sense from Gould's Goldberg, on a subjective level. This gradation between sounds produced by man and machine is an important one that will only become more significant in coming years. So I'll cut off my comments at this point, but note that in the future I will be listening to the Audiophile Classics version.
Recommendation: The Zenph sounds the best but may not be optimal for those who may have issues either with the results (like me), the idea of a "re-performance" or the ability to access SACD or the CD layer on their stereo set-up. For those listeners, the Audiophile Classics remastering is significantly preferable to the widely-available Sony re-release.
My comparison was made on two high-quality sound systems with different types of components. Hope this is helpful.