Sergei Rachmaninoff made his US debut in 1909. When he returned with his family in 1918, at the age of 45, he joined other refugees, but unlike those who arrived in steerage, he was welcomed by artistic Russians already living here, including Prokofiev. He seemed to like it here, and America served him as a solid base for musical operations. It was here that he enjoyed tremendous success, giving over a thousand recitals and making a vast number of recordings, mostly for the Victor Company. Shortly before his death, in 1943, he became a citizen of this country.

When we listed the concert under discussion in CVNC‘s calendar, we noted that the evening represented the composer-conductor-pianist’s only appearance in Raleigh this season, but in fact his artistry may be on the verge of a renaissance, and not only in our capital. That’s due to the remarkable technical work of a team of devoted software engineers, artists, and piano enthusiasts who work for Zenph Studios, based in Raleigh.

The program, given in Peace College’s Sarah Graham Kenan Recital Hall, featured Rachmaninoff as pianist and composer, heard in “re-performances” of recordings made by the artist on acoustic and electrical discs between 1921 and 1942. The lineup consisted of music by Kreisler, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff himself. It was the sort of bits-and-pieces assemblage that might well have been presented on LPs a generation ago as “The Great Rachmaninoff” or “The Art of Sergei Rachmaninoff” or maybe even “Rachmaninoff’s Greatest Hits.” Part of the reason for that was the nature of the recording industry during the master’s heyday. For Victor, he made only two major works for solo piano – Chopin’s Second Sonata and Schumann’s Carnaval. There are of course recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra of the four Rachmaninoff concerti, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the Third Symphony, and there are recordings with violinist Fritz Kreisler of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, in G, Grieg’s Sonata in C minor, and Schubert’s Sonata in A. Otherwise, for better or worse, the pianist’s large discography encompasses mostly works so brief as to fit on one or two 10″ or 12″ 78 rpm sides. There are more substantial pieces on a handful of discs made for Edison, discs that are a good deal more challenging than the Victors to transfer (because they were cut vertically, as opposed to laterally, like all other contemporaneous recordings). And there are a few more substantial pieces on piano rolls, made for the Ampico Company. Setting all that aside, however, what was presented at Peace was a fine assortment of short works from across a 21-year period.

Yet they all sounded equally wonderful – because everything had been given the Zenph treatment, which is basically a computerized capture of attacks, velocity, pitches, duration, and interpretive nuances introduced by pedaling. The result is a state-of-the-art realization of what the artist put into his recordings, physically – and the result of that can, through the miracles of high-tech wizardry (and, one must gather, a huge amount of human effort), be played back on specially-adapted and outfitted pianos to produce what the Zenph folks call “re-performances.”

Thus far, this technique has been applied to Glenn Gould’s first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and to piano recordings by Art Tatum. Rachmaninoff is the third artist to receive “the treatment.” The resulting CD will be released this fall by Sony BMG, but the sound files that are behind that pending issue were played publicly at Peace before a capacity audience, set in context by remarks from Walker and several of his key representatives – Peace-based pianist Milton Laufer, project director and pianist Anatoly Larkin (whose own pianism has been reviewed in these pages – click here), and Richard Shepherd, the British engineer whose equipment is embedded in Zenph’s magnificent 1909 Steinway Model D piano, the instrument that – with Rachmaninoff’s 16 sound files – was basically the star of the artistic show made possible by comparably stellar technical advances. (The Steinway is a stunning instrument, visually and of course aurally; Shepherd gave a brief example of what it sounds like with a living keyboardist – and then had the piano itself play back that sample, to demonstrate yet another aspect of the new technology.)

Hearing recordings as – more or less – “live” performances made for uncanny experiences to those who have known the sound artifacts over the long haul. As it happens, I grew up listening to many of the 78s heard at Peace, and I bought the reissues of “everything” when they came out on 15 LPs around 1973, and then, again, when the material was remastered for CDs. The reason for this devotion to RCA was artistic: these recordings constituted the first more or less complete documentation of the work of a major creative artist on records. (Stravinsky would eventually receive comparable treatment from Columbia.)

Was Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) the first great pianist to benefit from the recording process? Certainly not – that honor would most likely fall to Joseph Hofmann (1876-1957), whose “complete” output, currently being republished by Marston, includes several cylinders dating from 1895(!). But Rachmaninoff’s importance as a performing artist cannot be overemphasized, and therefore the work by Zenph Studios, work that will likely permit yet another generation of artists and music lovers to experience his work, is of immense importance.

Just how much it meant could be gleaned from the attentive, mostly well-dressed Peace College audience, which listened intently and applauded enthusiastically throughout the evening, even given the certain irony of the proceeding – this was, basically, a film session for a future TV show that involved recording a recording being played by a mechanical device before a live audience. Strip all that away, however, and what remains was the art and the music – art and music that have been providing intense pleasure and eliciting astonishment from listeners since the first of these items was produced and sold to the public, starting in 1919 or so. Think about that when you ponder the long-term significance of the work of today’s budding young artists….

Notes: 1) The complete program for this recital is listed at The encore was Beethoven’s “Turkish” March, from The Ruins of Athens, played by Rachmaninoff in Anton Rubinstein’s arrangement on February 1, 1927, in New York, for Ampico. 2) Zenph has announced it plans to offer a repeat of this program in the fall, when the CD is released. Stay tuned.

Updated 6/17/09: For photos of the preparation for this event plus several from the recital itself, click here: