The Fifth Element #16 Page 2

Glenn Again
Speaking of which: You may recall that, last year about this time—"The Fifth Element," March 2002—I was knee-deep in an ultimately fruitless quest to determine whether DSD-on-SACD remasterings of recordings originally made on early PCM equipment could yield sonic benefits. The test piece was Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. No conclusions could be drawn, in view of the Accuphase DP-101 SACD decoder's nondefeatable DSD upconversion of "Red Book" CD data, but an interesting development was the discovery of a "ghost" or "mouse" orchestra playing along at a very low level during certain variations.

I speculated that there might have been analog tapes made as backups, and wondered whether those could be released in some form. I can't take credit for it, but, to my surprise and delight, Sony decided that the 20th anniversary of the release of Gould's 1981 Goldbergs should be commemorated by the release of a bargain-price three-CD set: A State of Wonder (Sony Classical Legacy S3K 87703).

The first CD is a fresh remastering from the original analog source of Gould's 1955 Goldbergs. The third CD includes a publicity interview with Gould wherein he explains—at times using musical examples—why he decided to re-record the work, despite the fact that his earlier recording was generally regarded as one of the most important classical records ever. That bonus CD also includes some chatter and outtakes from the 1955 sessions.

But the new set's sine qua non and raison d'être (and probably a few other foreign phrases as well) is its second CD: the 1981 Goldbergs, mastered from newly edited analog backup tapes. Rather than take a razor blade to the irreplaceable analog tapes, Sony's team sensibly decided to dump them, as is, into a Sonoma DSD workstation, and then perform the edits in the digital domain. The producer of the 1981 sessions assisted, using the original marked-up sheet music.

I hope that this means that Sony will in due course offer an SACD from the analog source, but as it is, the "Red Book" CD from the analog tapes is plainly superior to the SACD made from the PCM master. "Plainly" as in "across a crowded room." Hmmm...

One is moved to make three observations:

First, one hopes Sony will "do the right thing" and price any new analog-derived SACD of the 1981 Goldbergs lower than dirt. So to speak. Some of us have already bought this performance in four guises, and even if No.5 will be the best of all, those who bought the PCM-derived SACD when it first came out perhaps are entitled to feel a little miffed (without for a moment slighting the very admirable $7/disc pricing of A State of Wonder).

Second, the fact that one of the signal classical-recordings events of the past year is a budget-priced "Red Book" set of 22- and 38-year-old performances, one of which handily eclipses its comparatively recent SACD version, just goes to show you. As the Soviet historian ruefully remarked, with each passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the past.

Finally, although Gould was a great pianist, he not only gave free rein to a wide streak of willful perversity, he also made ideological virtue out of psychological necessity. For a number of reasons, he came to a point where he could no longer perform in public. That did not entitle him to declare the end of public performance in general as a valid art form, or to posit painstakingly edited, and in cases allegedly post-produced, recordings as an art form superior to live performance. That aspect of Gould's legacy must be taken with a dump truck full of road salt. Rest in peace, despite and still. And thanks.

Grace Design Model 901 headphone amplifier
My listening to Glenn Gould's A State of Wonder was lent a deeper dimension by one of the most "gotta have it" pieces of gear I've played with in a dog's age: Grace Design's Model 901 professional headphone amplifier ($1495) (footnote 2).

It is often a sure indication that a product will turn out to be tremendous when its maker designs it for himself and a couple of friends, never intending to make a commercial product of it, because he doubts that the larger marketplace will "get it." Give me inner conviction over market research, any time.

Footnote 2: "901" is an interesting choice of model number. Porsche's 911 was originally intended to be called the 901, but on the eve of its auto-show debut, Peugeot asserted trademark rights in all possible numeric designations for automobiles consisting of three digits with a zero in the middle. Which always struck me as piggish. I know about WWII and all that, but everyone hates a sore winner. And let us not forget Bose's 901, Julian Hirsch's review of which fairly electrified me way back when. But I digress.