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Can a pianist's wrong note played in 1962 be fixed in 2013?

A wrong note that has resonated for more than half a century is fixed - without the aid of a time machine.


I was listening to BBC Radio 3 while I hammered at my computer keyboard this morning, as an antidote to all the pop music I have been exposing myself to lately. I was enjoying a performance of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 22, performed by Wilhelm Kempff in a live recording made at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1962.

Since the sheet music for this piece lives handily within my piano stool and I do stumble through it occasionally, I have an idea of how it goes. And when I heard good old Willy play a wrong note, it stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Not that I mind. Wilhelm Kempff dates back to an era when classical musicians were human beings, not machines. Much classical music is supposed to sound difficult and the odd stumble among otherwise excellent playing confirms this (just like occasional feedback at a live show lets you know you're listening to a real performance, not something pre-recorded.) Now if you want to listen to a pianist who never played a wrong note, then Thelonious Monk is your man. His piano didn't have any!

So, the wrong note. Here it is...

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If you're in doubt, here it is again, focused a little more tightly...

It maybe isn't exactly a wrong note, just a couple of notes squashed together that should have been played as even semiquavers. It's in bar 38 of the third movement, if you want to look it up.

So, let me jump into my time machine, go back to 1962, ask Willy to retake the section after the concert has finished. (I was there when the BBC did this in a live opera recording for TV. Someone came out after the performance and asked the audience if they would mind if they repeated a section. I didn't see even one person leave.)

Back to 2013, time machine powered down and back in the garage, here's the result...

See, I knew Willy could play it just fine!

But what did I really do?

Since in reality there is no possibility of a retake, the first and most obvious solution is to look for an identical passage elsewhere in the piece. Classical music is often repetitive and there's a reasonably good chance. In fact, there is an extended repeated section in this piece that includes bar 38. So all I had to do was copy the offending passage from the first repeat, and paste it into the second. A little fiddling about with timings and fades and the result isn't at all bad. I very much doubt if anyone would notice anything untoward if they hadn't been told there was an edit. A specialist in classical music editing would have done even better.

This doesn't always work. In this case, Kempff played quite a lot louder the second time than he did the first. Where sections of a piece are repeated the whole point is not to play them the same way. Getting tight in around the problem helps, as does not choosing musically obvious edit points.

So, problem fixed! In the spirit of good karma, if you like the music and the playing, you might consider buying the CD...

P.S. I was once asked to fix a recording of Schumann's Piano Concerto where the opening solo section was entirely missing as someone had pressed the record button too late. I stole it from another record. Sometimes you just have to get the job done any way you can. It's still out there somewhere...

By David Mellor Sunday May 19, 2013