Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff

Does Not Cause Blindness

by: Colin Oettle


While Rachmaninoff’s legacy lives in the rich, dark melodies he inscribed into a lifetime of compositions, knowledge of his prowess as a performer still remains limited to historical accounts and crackly recordings. Recording technology was just beginning to bud during his career, so the sound quality of even remastered recordings is passable at best. But because there is an inexorable authenticity to his performances, and because these remaining vestiges of his pianism prove that Rachmaninoff’s big hands were contrarily delicate, these recordings remain among my favorites despite their dustiness.

Until recently, the closest modern listeners could come to hearing Rachmaninoff perform was by listening to a recording of a piano roll performance. While Rachmaninoff himself was impressed with the accuracy a piano roll contained in reproducing dynamics, rubato, and other musical elements, he only created 35 in his lifetime. It is reported that upon hearing one for the first time, he exclaimed “Gentlemen — I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!”

But with the advent of Zenph Studios’ “re-performance” technology, computer software can analyze old recordings and translate them into “high definition MIDI” data. A computer then interprets the data, and operates the hammers of a specially modified piano to deliver a performance identical to the source recording.

Using this technology, RCA Victor has created a re-recording of Rachmaninoff playing his own works. Selections from the recording are being featured on WQXR, and can be purchased at ArkivMusic.com. Check out the ArkivMusic site for samples, including Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the first movement of Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin.


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