A computer-driven player piano that addresses the artist

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For as long as pianos have been a part of musical life, creative and recreative artists have devoted their lives to making this unruly contraption of ebony, ivory, steel, and wood ``say'' something -- i.e., express an individual artistic vision. Until now, the process has always been one of an artist addressing the keyboard to tame it. Now there's the B"osendorfer 290-SE -- a piano that addresses the artist! Not too long ago, Charles Rosen sat down at one in the Curt Swidler Artist Pianos showroom here and played some Schubert. Moments later, the piano played it back to him exactly as he has played it -- tempo variations, dynamic shading, inflection, nuance, and all. A state-of-the-art player piano. And a spooky one at that.

As a playback medium, this computer-assisted B"osendorfer beats even compact discs: Imagine buying an eight-inch floppy disk of Vladimir Horowitz -- performances broken down digitally into a mass of micro-milliseconds -- to play at will on your own home B"osendorfer. Yet, this is billed as an educational tool to help assess technical progress in the piano studio. But what ambitious student is going to spend hours pondering his or her own practice sessions if there is access to a Claudio Arrau or an And r'e Watts performance to study (or imitate) -- note for note, inflection for inflection?

It is also suggested this will be an important tool for the scientific analysis of important performers' styles. If and when there is a sufficiently large library of digitally stored performances, will pedagogues really study, data-bit by data-bit, the difference between a Vladimir Ashkenazy and an Emanuel Ax? What will that prove? Less disturbingly, this could be a handy tool in the recording studio. An artist could play through a piece secure in the knowledge that any misstruck notes will be correct ed afterward by pinpointing the phrase or chord and correcting only that note in the computer program. At the studio, recording would simply be a process of running a tape while the piano performed Maurizio Pollini playing Prokofiev -- no errors, no edits, no splices. The pianist would not even have to be present.

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What, then, is the next step? In a pinch, an unavoidably detained virtuoso could send his floppy disk to ``perform'' in his stead at Carnegie Hall. Is it so far-fetched in an age where some recitalists are so detached as to make one question if the artist is absent, at least in spirit? Past gold medal winners in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition have been accused of absentee artistry, including the latest one, Jos'e Feghali. His Carnegie Hall debut a few weeks ago was received with words such as ``bland ,'' ``safe,'' ``boring.''

I wonder if the reaction would have been warmer had he come to town without the Cliburn trappings? For although Feghali may not be a thinking man's pianist, he knows how to tame a Steinway. True, there lingered a sense that more could have been made of any one of the pieces he offered, especially Schumann's ``Carnaval.'' Yet, I have rarely heard the work successfully interpreted by a pianist under the age of 35, and Feghali was no exception: He used ``Carnaval'' to show off his own digital dexterity, i n the manner of an old-fashioned supervirtuoso. In a simpler era, this was a perfectly valid way to make a career. Today youngtsers are expected to ``say'' something, or else they are simply not taken seriously by the chroniclers of musical events -- many of whom resent the Cliburn Competition for extra-artistic reasons.

And yet, those very chroniclers were nowhere to be seen at a recital by Joseph Villa at Holy Trinity Church here last week. Is it because Villa is not surrounded with the trappings of competitions, major recording contracts, prime-time concert managements -- the things that get the press to concerts? Had no one heard, either, of his two magnificent Second Hearing compact discs? Both are devoted to Liszt. Both the ``Recital'' (GS 9001 -- CD only) and the ``Ann'ees de P`elerinage, Premi`ere ann'ee: La Sui sse'' (GS 9006 -- CD only) reveal a pianist of spectacular virtuosity, wedded to a poetic and tender soul -- an artist with something to say.

At Holy Trinity, Villa offered the sort of rhapsodic, fiery, yet introspective ``Carnaval'' one only dreams of encountering. He used ``Carnaval'' to show off Schumann. And the same can be said of his Liszt, his Chopin, his Mendelssohn. Even in the rather overgenerous acoustics of the church, it was clear that his ear for balance, especially in the filigree work of the busiest Lisztian moments, is unusually keen. He has a personal way of communicating with a piano that sets him apart from so many pian ists -- young and old, established and aspiring -- who too often sound like everyone else.

No one ever accused Emil Gilels of sounding like everyone else. The Russian master, who passed on last month, was one of the giants of his era. He profited from his first trips to the West in the early 1950s, refining and honing his style, toning down the angularities and harshnesses that intruded on his earlier style (if the recordings are any indication).

To these ears, Gilels and Brahms were an ideal match. The pianist had just the right amount of subdued passion to bring the music emotionally to life, and all the power needed to ride climaxes, especially in the concertos, which pit the piano against a rather massive orchestra. In the solo Brahms literature, such as the ``Paganini Variations,'' he found the passion and the poetry. He leaves a large recorded legacy, but recordings -- even the newest patricianly rendered Beethoven, in full digital sound -- only give a hint of Gilels in person, for he was a special artist with a special sound. -- 30 --

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