BACH: Goldberg Variations (Aria and 30 Variations) – Glenn Gould, piano – Columbia (1955)/ Pristine Audio (48/24 download)

by | Sep 16, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations (Aria and 30 Variations) – Glenn Gould, piano – Columbia Records (1955)/ Pristine Audio 48K/24bit Ambient Stereo PAKM062 FLAC (other formats available), 38:33 ****:


This was the amazing recording that introduced pianist Glenna Gould to the world at large, and it quickly became one of the top-selling classical recordings ever. It was of course in mono and he later did it again in stereo, but all critics seem to agree that one didn’t trump this terrific performance, with such lightning-fast passages that leave one breathless, but every note clear as a bell due to Gould’s harpsichord-like touch and nearly eschewing the pedal (although he put a little rug under it to supposedly reduce noises…Ha).

It surprised me to hear very little of Gould’s famous singing and humming along with his playing on this recording.  It seems that got worse as he got older, but it was bad enough at this 1955 session that the engineers placed the mics very close to the strings inside the piano to try to minimize Gould’s extraneous sounds (though never anything like Keith Jarrett’s yelling on many of his jazz recordings).  As a result the piano sound is rather strange, and on the original CD or LP quite tinny sounding. The main aim of Andrew Rose at Pristine in doing this remastering was not specifically to eliminate Gould’s singing, but to improve the piano sound. He wanted to achieve a rich and full three-dimensional sonic from the piano, and he has.

He has also used Pristine’s Ambient Stereo on the mono originals. This process is light years beyond the primitive re-channeled stereo of some LPs in the ‘60s, which merely directed some frequencies to one channel and the others to the other channel.  There is no wandering around of instruments with Ambient Stereo, and no artificial reverberation is added, making it sound entirely normal if bridged to mono. It seems to add a greater depth to the music without exaggerated stereo effects. The enhancement and improvement is even more noticeable during headphone listening.

Next to the Pristine remastering, the Columbia CD of 1955 sounds thin, distant and somewhat unnatural, and is quite lacking in the bass end. There are, however, on the Sony Classical reissue of 2000 (82876746512) five additional outtakes at the end, which Gould had never wanted released, but they did anyway. They consist of some of his comments on the music, and some of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions which he recorded at the same time. The reissue also has a beautiful little bound book of photos and articles titled Birth of a Legend about every aspect of the eccentric pianist, making it definitely worth picking up if you are into Gould, and especially if you don’t already have the 1955 LP or CD.  Rose decided not to tack on any extras to the 38-minute original recording.

One thing bothered me a bit on the Pristine remastering, and that is a sort of thumping of the action which is not heard on the original (probably due to its limited bass extension). I surmise this might have been exaggerated by the close placement of the mics inside the grand piano. There is huge bass support of the piano tone which is missing on the original, almost too much—at least on my system.

This would be a simple case of the remastering being the winner here, were it not for the unusual and unique “re-performance” recordings of Zenph Studios. Their special software-based process takes original audio recordings—mono or stereo, even scratchy acetates or hissy tapes—and encodes the details of how each note was played, including the most subtle nuances. The encoding is then played back on a Yamaha Digital Reproducing Grand Piano or Disklavier Pro, which allows listeners to hear the original performance as if they were in the room when it was originally made. This “re-performance” on the grand piano can be recorded afresh using the latest recording techniques, in glorious stereo, hi-res and multichannel.

In fact that is what Zenph did with Gould’s original Goldbergs on Sony Classical disc 88697-03350-2, not only a multichannel SACD with a CD layer, but also repeating the entire work as recorded by a binaural dummy head, giving the listener with headphones the impression he or she is sitting at the keyboard performing the work themselves. [Here’s our review of it.]

And although Sony now no longer issues SACDs of Zenph’s work, this one is still available at about $13 on Amazon. Here we have the very closest to the real thing, in genuine hi-res surround, plus absolutely not even a hint of Gould’s famed extraneous sound-making.


—John Sunier

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