Ludwig van Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas
I had just agreed to record Robert Silverman, who is featured on three of the Stereophile CDs (footnote 1) performing Beethoven piano sonatas, and, naturally, had asked which of these 32 masterworks he would be playing.
"All of them."
I blanched. This was an enormous task: 32 sonatas; 103 individual movements; more than 11 hours of music—11 hours, 26 minutes, and 25 seconds, as it turned out—a good 10 CDs' worth. I was also puzzled.
"How long did you say we had the hall booked for?"
"A long weekend. If you can arrive on Friday, we can start rolling tape that evening, with Monday morning available for any touch-up takes that we might need."
This explained precisely nothing. My experience with the 14 Stereophile CDs had led me to expect that a good day's or evening's worth of sessions with a prepared musician who had the works under his fingers would still get the raw material for only about 20 minutes of edited music down on tape. I knew Bob had been performing the complete Beethoven sonatas live for several years, in four-concert cycles in Toronto, Seattle, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, as well as in partial form in Santa Monica and at HI-FI '98 in Los Angeles. But I still didn't see how even a perfectly prepared artist could get this pinnacle of the piano repertoire down on tape without any mistakes in just two and a half days.
"Ah, but I'm not going to be playing. I'm preparing the performances for playback on a Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano."
The light dawned. Perhaps best known from Wayne Stahnke's re-creations from piano rolls for it of Rachmaninoff performing his own music—A Window in Time, Vols.1 & 2, Telarc CD-80489 and CD-80491—the Bösendorfer 290SE is a conventional 9' concert grand to which has been added a system of computer-controlled sensors and actuators, designed by Stahnke.
This piano, of which only 32 have been manufactured by the Viennese company, can act both as a recorder and as a playback machine. When recording, the piano stores information about the timing and dynamics of each note, and the pedaling, in a file on a PC. Unlike the MIDI-controlled Yamaha Disklavier, the Bösendorfer can distinguish among more than 1000 differences in volume, and can split each measure into very fine time increments. For playback, the PC data are sent to the piano, where high-precision electromagnetic actuators operate the keys and pedals.
How precise, how musically accurate this mechanism is, is hard to describe. So rather than try, I will mention what happened before we began recording on the Sunday of the sessions.
I had mentioned to Bob that I had just bought the Telarc Rachmaninoff CDs, also recorded on a Bösendorfer 290SE, and had really enjoyed the transcription of Felix Mendelssohn's Spinning Song (Op.67 No.34), with its dotted-rhythm melody dancing above the moto perpetuo background . He smiled, booted up the piano, reached for a floppy disk, and asked me to listen.
My god. This was better than any hi-fi I had ever experienced—I actually had Sergei Rachmaninoff in the room, playing Mendelssohn just for me. I am not ashamed to say that I wept.
Bob was confident that the Bösendorfer would accurately capture the nuances of his playing. More important, as the recorded performance data are in the form of conventional computer text files, these could be edited to change dynamics, timing, and pedaling as desired. Even individual notes could be corrected or replaced. I asked how much correction could be done. Didn't this technology render human virtuosity obsolete?
"Yes, you can make all manner of changes," Bob explained, "but it is a time-consuming process. The musician still basically has to be able to communicate his vision of the performance."
At regular intervals through the fall of 1999, Bob flew down to Santa Monica—where the Maestro Foundation's Aaron Mendelsohn has two of the Bösendorfers—to capture his performances of the sonatas on hard disk. For each movement, once Bob had a "take" down that basically captured his vision of the work, he and producer Jim Turner (an excellent jazz pianist in his own right) would play it back on the piano and correct or change small details to produce the master file. Knowing when to leave well enough alone or to go for just that little bit more is the essence of the producer's art. "[Jim's] sense of perfection equals mine," wrote Bob in the liner notes for the eventual CD set, "and his refusal to be satisfied with a take just because 'the right notes are covered' may have caused me a lot of grief late at night, but left me far more thankful the next day."
Footnote 1: Intermezzo (1991, STPH003-2) features works by Brahms; Concert (1994, STPH005-2), works by Chopin, Schumann, Bach, and Schubert; Sonata (1996, STPH008-2), works by Liszt, including the heroically proportioned Sonata in b. All are available from Stereophile.com, where you can also read my 1996 interview with Robert. Robert Silverman's website has a full discography and other information about the pianist.