Not a music lover in the world hasn’t longed for a dearly departed artist to be with us again. Sometimes, we’ve even used technology to get us as close as we can to the experience. Now, artisanal piano maker Bösendorfer has answered this desire at an unprecedented level of authenticity and good taste in the form of a self-playing grand piano that seems virtually possessed by the generous spirit of jazz piano legend Oscar Peterson, who passed away in December of 2007.
The Oscar Peterson Signature Edition Piano begins with a Bösendorfer model 200 (an approximately 6’ 7’’ grand) that incorporates Yamaha Disklavier technology. For the uninitiated, the Disklavier is the most sophisticated modern “player piano” made, with uncanny resolution when it comes to capturing the subtleties between pianississimo and fortississimo and all the variations in harmonic content that go alongside the full range of velocities. In short, it’s sensitive enough to capture anyone’s performance, then play it back in their absence.
But where to find the performances? Oscar Peterson was an early adopter of “reproducing piano technology,” and in 1984, he recorded 13 jazz standards into a Marantz-Superscope Pianocorder. It used cassette tapes to store data and was the best way to actuate a solenoid-based player piano mechanism at the time. They first found their way into the Disklavier format over 15 years ago, for reasons Oscar’s widow Kelly Peterson explains:
“In 2000, the Library and Archives of Canada wanted to do a big exhibit on Oscar,” says Mrs. Peterson, “and in addition to all the memorabilia and papers they collected, they thought it would be nice to have a Disklavier in the lobby playing songs Oscar had recorded. So he and Mike Voelkel [of Yamaha Canada] sat down and really listened to how the Disklavier played the old files, in order to tweak all the nuances and transitions perfectly and take advantage of the newer technology.”
Voelkel further explains how the “up-rezzing” of the original Pianocorder files was accomplished—painstakingly and by hand: “Oscar was very impressed, but he felt that it didn’t quite capture his exact playing. I said we could edit the files but it would involve him sitting next to me at my computer and Disklavier piano. I was using a Windows PC running Cubase, MIDI’ed to the piano. The current Disklavier was the Mark III back then. Its precision was very good, which allowed us to preview changes as the edits were done. Then the Mark IV came out in 2004, and the current mechanism, called the E3, is what’s used in the new Bösendorfer.”
The results? I personally witnessed the piano in action at NAMM, and not only is it accurate to Peterson’s playing, but the feel and emotion, and his sense of interpretation are there. It sounds hyperbolic, but I don’t know how else to put it: It’s as if he is there. “Listening to this piano and watching the keys move can be difficult,” said Kelly Peterson. “It makes me miss him all over again.”
What if you want to sit down next to Oscar and try to learn his voicings and solos? As with any Disklavier song, you can slow down the tempo and transpose by half-steps. With the 13 onboard Peterson performances, MIDI output is disabled to prevent them from being nefariously copied, and there’s no other way to get these particular performances than to buy one of the 12 pianos slated to be made. Otherwise, the piano is both a fully functional Disklavier and a true Bösendorfer.
Visual touches include an outline of Oscar Peterson on the music rack and a transcription of “Hallelujah Time” engraved into the rack’s right-hand shelf. You might expect to pay six figures for a grand piano this unique, and you’d be correct: It’s just shy of $190,000, putting it in the stratosphere of “because you can” luxury instruments. If in fact you can, then it’s a Medici-like act of patronage to preserve a piece of Peterson’s musical soul in your living room.