The late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was weird. Compared to his bizarre routines, the petulant attitudes and outrageous demands of spoiled rock and movie stars seem downright normal. But often it takes a spark of madness to kindle the fires of genius, especially in the arts. Gould left a fabulous legacy of brilliant and fascinating recordings.
Just how weird was he? Consider this:
But much of Gould's quirkiness led to striking results. Thus, his peculiar playing position let him achieve a purity of touch and an evenness of tone that the muscular, shoulder-heavy playing of his peers couldn't approach. Deafening noise enabled him to rely upon an inner ear of the imagination and to push his aural ideal beyond the limitations of actual sound. His contempt for standard repertoire led him to proselytize for important but neglected material in lieu of the same tired pieces his peers constantly programmed.
Most important of all, forsaking concerts led him to the recording studio as a creative outlet. While most classical artists of his time claimed to be repulsed by the artifice of the recording process, Gould came to view it as the only reliable means to capture and convey an artistic conception and embraced its creative possibilities to craft some of the most remarkable piano albums ever released. He used multiple microphones to build novel acoustical environments, played fearlessly at a super-human pace with the assurance that flaws would be corrected, and seized upon the resources of editing to fashion subtly complex emotional interpretations by intersplicing dozens of different takes.
Gould took the world by storm with his very first LP. Born and raised in Toronto, he had concertized for a decade throughout Canada but had established a strictly local reputation. Only a few curious souls attended his 1955 New York debut, but among them was the head of the classical division of Columbia Records. Stunned by Gould's brilliance and intrigued by a challenging program that shunned all the usual crowd-pleasers for obscurities both old (Gibbons, Sweelink and Bach) and new (Webern and Berg), he signed the youngster to a long-term exclusive contract the very next day, an unprecedented move at the time for a major label.
Gould's record debut was the Bach Goldberg Variations, a set of 32 rather staid, formal pieces, commissioned in 1742 to help its insomniac patron fall asleep. Such a reaction to Gould's radical reconception, though, would be unthinkable. In lieu of performing the work with traditional refined grace on an authentic instrument, Gould regarded it as pregnant with promise and capacity for exhaustive exploitation, and proceeded to unleash his bold vision on a concert grand using extreme tempos, huge dynamics and phenomenal technique. Columbia stoked enthusiasm by inviting critics to observe the sessions, and they dutifully reported the new curiosity in the throes of his eccentricities. The album flew to the top of the classical charts and through constant LP, cassette and CD reissues has remained a best-seller ever since.
Gould established an instant reputation as a Bach specialist, and with good reason. A half-century earlier Wanda Landowska had rescued Bach from romanticized high-calorie orchestrations and bloated keyboard adaptations by playing his works on the harpsichord with dignity and humanism. Her records remain deeply moving, but it was Gould who went further to foster a genuine love and passion for Bach. His style was precise, his rhythms were crisp and the clarity of his counterpoint was underlined by avoiding the blurred pedal effects typical of other pianists. The result was deeply respectful of the inherent values of the source, yet vibrant and exciting. Over the next 25 years, Gould recorded nearly all the other Bach keyboard solos. They enthralled many, repelled some, but, most important, stimulated discussion and renewed interest in a neglected genius.
Actually, Gould did record some of the standard repertoire, including a complete set of the Mozart piano sonatas and many of Beethoven's. While they were far from idiomatic and were generally written off as perverse, for those who already know these works Gould's approach can be a revelation. For example, Gould sped up the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and drained it of inflection in order to suggest a wistful dance rather than wallowing in the usual melancholy despair. On the other hand, he decelerated the first movement of the Appassionata Sonata to barely half its standard pace, exaggerating its pauses and bass-heavy sonority to turn its drama into very heavy melodrama.
But perhaps of greater interest and significance is Gould's exploration of less traveled paths. Much has already been written in awe (or bewilderment) about the core of Gould's repertoire, and especially his extensive Bach recordings. And so, perhaps inspired by a bit of Gould's iconoclasm, I thought it might be more valuable to focus on his less popular records that are often overlooked but which reveal just as much about Gould's outlook and art. For a short-cut to an area of particular interest, just click on the following: concert Bach, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, chamber music, Chopin(!), Brahms, Grieg, Bizet and Sibelius, Scriabin and Prokofiev, Hindemith, Wagner, Berg, Krenek and Webern, Schoenberg, Modern Canadians, Byrd and Gibbons, duets with Menuhin, and Gould as a composer.
Bach: Goldberg Variations (live in Salzburg, 1959), Three-Part Inventions (live in Moscow, 1957). Sony SMK 52685.
Lest anyone fear that Gould's astounding debut record of the Goldberg Variations was a fabrication of the editing block, here's a magnificent live performance to document his unadulterated brilliance. It's nearly as note-perfect and every bit as volatile as the studio product (now on Sony SMK 52594), yet it's tempered with just enough feeling to sidestep the occasional sterility of the record. The Inventions are of even greater value, though. Although the sound is distorted and rather low-fi, and although the first piece is missing and the others are shorn of their two-part introductions, this concert avoids the mechanical problem that for me destroys any enjoyment of the 1964 studio version (on Sony SMK 52596). Until it was demolished in a moving accident, Gould had a single favorite piano from Steinway inventory, known as CD 318, which was reserved exclusively for his use and upon which he performed major surgery in order to approach the clarity and feel of a harpsichord; as he noted this wasn't as great a sacrifice on the part of the makers as you might imagine, since no one else has ever expressed the slightest interest in it. In the course of adjusting CD 318 for the Inventions session, Gould managed to afflict it with a bizarre hiccup effect in the middle register, by which random sustained notes were repeated. Gould acknowledged this in the album notes (to Columbia MS 6622) but professed to find the result charming and justified it as related to the clavichord's propensity for an intra-tone vibrato. He went on to assert his sober conviction that no piano need feel duty-bound to always sound like a piano. To me, though, the sonic quirk ruins the rhythm and becomes incredibly annoying. Here, then, is an alternate version that avoids this problem while preserving Gould's fundamental approach to these wonderful morsels.
Bach: Art of the Fugue (excerpts - Fugues I through IX on the organ and I, II, IV, IX, XI and XIV on piano); Prelude and Fugue, BWV 898. Sony SMK 52595.
Gould often cited this massive final compendium of Bach's art as his favorite work, yet he never made a complete recording (nor, for that matter, ever performed it as a whole). Perhaps that's fitting - after all, Bach died leaving it incomplete. This disc assembles all of Gould's partial tapings. Gould was a proficient organist and issued the first nine pieces in 1962 but he never resumed the project (nor made any further organ records). Curiously, he plays mostly in a stark, staccato manner without any pedal, as if to coax the king of keyboard instruments to disavow its legato nature. Of the piano excerpts, the most enthralling is the final and incomplete Fugue XIV, which Gould plays with a seething, wrenching spirituality. He revered this piece as the one in which Bach disavowed the stylistic contraints of his time to produce a pure and deeply personal statement of just who he really was as an artist. Gould cited as the most beautiful moment in all music the point here when Bach introduces a theme of notes corresponding to the letters of his own name. Incidentally, this performance was filmed and is included as one of the bonus video tracks on The Gould Variations (Sony SM2K 89344); to see him utterly transported as he delves into this monumental piece draws the viewer into Gould's special, private world and immeasurably enhances an understanding of the depth of his commitment to his art.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 5 (Emperor) (with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karel Ancerl); Strauss: Burlesque (with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Golschmann). Sony SMK 52687.
The Gould legend is one of an uncompromising artist, unyielding within the strict bounds of his personal taste, but his concert log suggests a far more practical recognition of commercial reality. True, he programmed loads of Bach and occasionally led his audiences down rarely trodden paths into Schoenberg, Gibbons and others, but consider this: of the 250 or so concerts between his 1955 New York debut and his 1964 retirement, 90 featured Beethoven concertos! Of those, 18 presented the Emperor, a work which, notwithstanding its enormous popularity and the nearly unanimous praise of others, he claimed to dislike, calling it harmonically simple-minded and an impossible mixture of naivete and professionalism ... nowhere this side of Grand Old Opry can one encounter more unadorned II-V-I progressions. Gould recorded it with Stokowski in 1966 in a lush, stately reading designed to emphasize its symphonic nature (included in Sony SM3K 52632). This later (1970) Toronto TV appearance arose by chance. Apparently Michelangeli was scheduled to perform and Gould, aware of the Italian's reputation as unreliable, joked with the producer that he had better be ready to step in. As predicted, Michelangeli cancelled at the last moment and Gould was held to his promise for what turned out to be his very last performance with an orchestra. Although conductor Ancerl was said to have remarked something about substituting one kook for another, Gould gives a good, solid reading - indeed, perhaps the only surprise here, and a rather huge one at that, is that the reading is so conventional. As for the Strauss, Gould would rise from the dead to challenge any accusation that he was a concert virtuoso, but the ease with which he dispatches this flashy and difficult piece provides proof that he could have had such a career and reputation had he so chosen.
Beethoven: Symphony # 5; Symphony # 6 (Pastorale) (first movement only) (arranged by Franz Liszt). Sony SMK 52636.
Beethoven: Symphony # 6 (Pastorale) (arranged by Franz Liszt). Sony SMK 52637.
These transport us back to a former time far removed from ours, before records, broadcasting or even efficient transportation. In Liszt's era, the vast majority of music lovers who wanted to hear a particular orchestral work had two choices: wait patiently for a local or visiting ensemble to program it (and continue to wait, perhaps in vain, to hear it again) or play it themselves, often in the form of a piano adaptation. Although Liszt was known for virtuostic paraphrases, his transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies are relatively straightforward. Gould apparently intended at one point to record them all but only got to the Fifth and the first movement of the Sixth. (The CD of the complete Pastorale is from a CBC radio broadcast.) Tempos tend to be strict, but not obsessively so, relying instead on subtle inflection and tone color to underline the structure. The Scene by the Brook, in particular, is extremely deliberate (nearly 21 minutes, as opposed to a standard 13 or so) and assumes an exquisite dream-like quality. Of course, it's easier to take such risks as a soloist, and the only comparable effect I've encountered among orchestral performances is Celibidache's 1993 concert (on EMI 56840), but it's only 16 minutes long. While Gould disparaged Liszt's transcriptions as an essentially impossible translation from orchestra to piano, the Fifth, in particular, succeeds quite well (and Gould only "cheated" in the finale by doubling himself into four-hands to thicken the texture). And speaking of disparagement, Gould's original album notes to the LP of the Fifth (Columbia MS 7095), poorly abridged in the CD booklet to miss most of its tongue-in-cheek essence, consisted of "reviews" (which he wrote himself) mostly panning his performance of this very work. The first, purporting to be from a snooty English journal, concludes: "Mr. Gould has been absent from British platforms these past few years and if this new CBS release is indicative of his current musical predilections, perhaps it is just as well."
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas # 24 ("À Thérèse") and 29 ("Hammerklavier"). Sony SMK 52645.
These two previously unreleased sonatas (the Hammerclavier from Toronto, 1970; À Thérèse from New York, 1968) apply similar approaches to two vastly dissimilar works. One would have assumed that Gould would have been drawn to the Hammerklavier’s culminating fugue, but in a lengthy letter to one of the Columbia producers (reprinted in the notes), Gould dismisses it as mathematical tomfoolery and indeed proclaims the entire sonata to be the most inconsiderate (in the sense of being horrendously difficult but not sounding all that hard) and least rewarding piece that Beethoven wrote for the piano and whose enigmas eluded him. His avowed approach was to craft unity through sheer conductorial momentum … [with] tempi coerced into coalescence. Gould’s performance may have succeeded in adhering to this goal but comes across as a dry, intellectual chore to realize the burdensome duty to which he admitted – an abstract, grim, fastidious exercise that blanches Beethoven of his essential epic emotion and surface tension, from the sluggish opening drained of any majesty to the fugue itself, plodding and meaningless without its inherent drama. To cite just a single instance, the incessant trills emerge as a mere mechanical flourish rather than the chlling foreboding that emerges from nearly every other recording. (The middle movements, while still rather perfunctory, seem somewhat lively and contemplative, respectfully, if only in comparison to the others.) The same dry approach is applied more successfully to the brief À Thérèse, if only because here Gould’s clipped inexpressive precision has less chance to damage the far more modest scale of the piece.
Mozart: Piano Concerto # 24 in c minor, K. 491 (with the CBC Symphony Orchestra, Walter Susskind conducting); Piano Sonata # 10, K. 330; Fantasia (Prelude) and Fugue, K. 394; Haydn: Piano Sonata in E-flat Major # 59. Sony SMK 52626.
Gould called Mozart a bad composer (and devoted an entire radio show to proving it). He claimed to like only the early sonatas, condemning the rest as empty theatrical gestures and cliches of self-parody. Yet, he recorded the complete set of sonatas (on Sony SM4K 52627), including the late ones in which he overcame his distaste largely by ignoring Mozart's tempo and expressive indications; while Gould claimed he was having fun with these pieces, they emerged cold, charmless and shallow. In these earlier recordings from January 1958, he plays middle works with energy and focus, although the fugue is rather severe. Gould claimed to much prefer Haydn as a crafting more individualistic pieces, and his performance here is indeed full of brio and enthusiasm. The c minor was the only Mozart concerto Gould ever performed; the recording is a beauty, even though Gould couldn't resist helping out the deficient composer by fleshing out the left hand part (which he felt Mozart had ignored in favor of the orchestral harmonization) and adding lots of extra ornamentation. Incidentally, its companion on the original issue was the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, surely one of the most bizarre couplings in LP history. Yet, in his album notes Gould related the two works as representing the terminal positions of the traditional piano concerto, illustrating the transition into and out of the grand manner. While Gould never really got around to discussing how the Schoenberg Concerto fulfilled the role he had assigned it, he expounded at some length about how the Mozart fuses the Baroque contrast of solo and tutti with the emerging trend toward symphonic development; the resultant tension between magnificent orchestral writing and an unimaginative solo part yields the model that was to serve as the virtuoso vehicle for the Romantic era (which Gould generally disparaged).
Haydn: Piano Sonatas #s 42, 48, 49, 50, 51 and 52. Sony SM2K 52623.
According to Gould maven Michael Stegemann's liner notes, this album was to have launched a new phase of Gould's recording career, supplementing his Columbia catalog with new series for Deutsche Grammophon aimed at the European market. Among the new projects were to have been boxes collecting the complete Haydn piano sonatas of each decade. Although negotiations lapsed, this single set was completed for Columbia. Notwithstanding his contempt for Mozart and his disinterest in the classical period in general, Gould claimed to love Haydn's sonatas as beautiful, innovative experiments. The late ones heard here are full-blooded and crisp, without even a hint of repose or sentiment, and boast the same crystal-clear lines, astoundingly precise articulation and occasionally blinding speed of his Bach. They're matched by the 1981 recording, Gould's first in digital sound (actually in pulse-code modulation, a somewhat primitive forebear of current technology, but whose harsh clarity provides a fine complement to Gould's playing). The only drawback is the timing, just 80 minutes sprawled over a full-priced 2-CD set. But it's a wonderful, tantalizing glimpse of what undoubtedly would have been a fabulous survey of the Haydn sonatas. Incidentally, the Sonata # 49 is one of the very few Gould remakes (of a 1958 recording issued on LP only in mono but released in stereo for the first time in the Glenn Gould Edition, SMK 52626); the remake is more heavily inflected and with a far faster finale, leaving behind the last vestige of the rococo feel of the earlier version.
Schumann: Piano Quartet, Op. 47 (with the Julliard String Quartet); Brahms: Piano Quintet, Op. 34 (with the Montreal String Quartet). Sony 52684.
These are Gould's only performances of conventional chamber music. Gould had powerful individualistic ideas and clearly needed the freedom to express them, but that only arose when performing solo or with compliant collaborators (ie: those young enough not to have developed their own incompatible notions). These pieces illustrate the point. The Brahms is derived from a 1957 broadcast with a newly-formed Canadian quartet who seemed eager to spotlight their famous compatriot and it works rather well - hardly the disaster heralded by the notes (entitled Mismatch and declaring that the piano and strings appear to be playing not with but against each other). It's with the Schumann that the soap-opera stuff becomes more appropriate. It's not quite clear why Gould ever undertook this project - he hated the composer and even though they had made a fine recording of the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1965 he was so rude to the famous and well-established Julliard Quartet that they reportedly weren't on speaking terms by the end of the Schumann session. It has been suggested that Columbia goaded him into it, although Gould usually exercised absolute control over his repertoire. While there are lots of nice individual moments, the whole thing just never jells into a cohesive statement nor kindles that necessary spark of inspiration that vitalizes a great chamber music performance.
Chopin: Sonata # 3, Op. 58; Scriabin: Sonatas #s 3 and 5, 2 Morceaux, 3 Preludes; Prokofiev: Sonata # 7; Mendelssohn: 5 Songs Without Words. Sony SM2K 52622.
This set documents the outer limits of Gould's aesthetic. Gould reportedly cited Robert Casadesus's record of the Chopin Sonata # 3 as one of his favorite albums because of its objectivity; here, in his only Chopin recording, Gould goes a step further and plays this deeply emotional work literally. Some of the lyrical passages come off rather well and the largo's inherent melting beauty is so strong as to survive Gould's insensitivity, but the opening Allegro maestoso is wooden, with a strict, plodding tempo and overly cautious dynamics, and the Presto non tanto finale lumbers along with grim determination, drained of all joy. The precision of the scalar runs shows that Gould had the requisite technique and then some, but his dry pedantry reflects a fundamental boredom that stifles the Sonata's essential poetry. Although Gould neither liked nor empathized with Chopin's major works, he professed to admire his miniatures but never recorded any nor, after his earliest student recitals, played them. From the same 1970 radio show as the Chopin Sonata came five Songs Without Words of Mendelssohn, whose craftsmanship Gould professed to admire, but there's nothing especially distinctive or distinguished about them, as they're played rather dutifully without insight or inspiration. The reason for Gould's tackling the Prokofiev and Scriabin Sonatas was quite clear - he was actively attacking the Horowitz legend in the most direct way he knew - trumping the master by matching his virtuosity in two of his signature pieces. Although he never extended his reach with more Prokofiev, his interest in Scriabin led to plans to record all the sonatas, of which he realized only the 5th plus the few miniatures here. As with the Chopin, Gould's interpretations may succeed from a purely technical point of view, but their dry academic approach loses the expressive soul of this music, especially when compared to the fire of Richter, the bristling ardor of Sofronitsky or the sheer Slavic spirit of Horowitz.
Brahms: 4 Ballades, Op. 10; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; 10 Intermezzi (Op. 76 #s 6 and 7, Op. 116 # 4, Op. 117 #s 1, 2 and 3, Op. 118, #s 1, 2 and 6, Op. 119 # 1). Sony SM2K 52651.
Given his iconoclasm in general and his claimed disdain for Mozart, Chopin, Liszt and other keyboard icons in particular, it’s more than a bit surprising that Gould would have enjoyed Brahms, but he did and here’s the proof. It wasn’t just a brief, passing fancy - the LP of ten Intermezzos was cut in 1960 and the Ballades and Rhapsodies came 22 years later. Nor were the latter of only casual significance; after a nine-month hiatus following his remake of the Bach Goldberg Variations (which brought his recording career full circle), it was these Brahms sessions that led him back to the studio for one of his very last projects. The provenance of the notes to this set is confusing - while mimicking Gould’s bizarre style of interviewing himself, they claim to be a fictitious patiche some of which is based on existing material. Genuine self-reflexive insight or not, their claim that his Brahms reflects a confluence of romanticism and improvisation seems a fair description of his approach. Even so, that Gould could credibly project an image of improvisational romanticism seems quite a stretch for an artist who built a reputation as an ascetic control-freak. The improvisational quality surfaces in unconventional tempi, which became a hallmark of Gould’s surveys of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. Gould claimed to have never played or even heard the Ballades until two weeks before the recording sessions, so his ideas, while clear, do seem more instinctive than fully considered and more rough-hewn than honed over a period of time. As for the romance element, it emerges more as a contented meditation on the echoes of past pleasures than the ardent youthful impulse of Romeo and Juliet. Gould’s selection of pieces is quite telling. By extracting only the intermezzi from five sets of diverse piano pieces, in which they were meant to function as oases of calm among other moods, Gould dwells on exploring aspects of a single fundamental tone and exploits the opportunity to delve into subtleties that otherwise wouldn’t be needed. The set works well, its emotional range so restricted that small contrasts seem relatively significant for lack of comparison to anything stronger, like the sensual comfort of floating without fear of being engulfed by waves.
Grieg: Piano Sonata in e minor, Op. 7; Bizet: Oremier Nocturne in F major; Variations chromatique (de concert); Sibelius: 3 Sonatines for Piano, Op. 67; Three Lyric Pieces, Op. 41 ("Kullikki"). Sony SM2K 52654.
This collection represents Gould's attempt to transfer his love of the frozen North (of America, that is) to Scandinavia. But with all due respect for his enthusiasm for these works and his deeply heartfelt playing, the results seem more interesting for extra-musical reasons. Grieg was a distant relative and in a confidential caution to critics on the original LP liner notes, Gould drolly suggested that therefore his interpretation should be entitled to deference as authoritative and immune from criticism. The allure of the Sibelius, which he aptly describes as spare, bleak, motivically stingy counterpoint, lies in its innovative recording. Producer Andrew Kazdin called his approach acoustic orchestration. In contrast to standard technique, in which microphones and controls are set and then left alone for an entire recording session, these pieces were taped using several varieties and placements of microphones on a multi-track master, which was then mixed down to vary the ambient image of the piano most appropriate to each portion of music and its role in the overall structure. That's the theory, at least. As heard on CD, there seems to be subtle audible differences in presence and atmosphere, ranging from rich reverberation to fairly close-in detail, together with a somewhat exaggerated stereo effect. (It's hard to tell if a more strikingly dramatic original effect was smoothed out in a misguided effort to clean up the sound for CD transfer, as unfortunately I don't have the original LP for comparison.) One aspect, though, is consistent and comes through loud and clear - Gould's moaning vocal accompaniment. As for the Bizet Variations, Gould proclaimed it one of the very few masterpieces for solo piano to emerge from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Of course, given Gould's disdain for music of that era, that's really not much of a compliment. In any event, Gould heralds the Variations as reflecting his (and Bizet's) enthrallment with the harmonic implications of Tristan, and it certainly lives up to its title as, in his words, taking a commanding lead in the accidentals sweepstakes by charting a path through a trail strewn with chromatic detours. Even so, it's a derivative compendium of contemporaneous techniques, from the Lisztian device of doubled octaves to a Chopanesque polka and shows more of an absorption of diverse styles than originality. The Bizet Nocturne, though, is lush, unpretentious and thoroughly winning. Rip-off alert - although sprawled across two full-priced CDs, this program could easily have fit on a single disc if the Nocturne had been used as filler for one of the other short volumes of this series instead of this one.
Hindemith: The 3 Piano Sonatas. Sony SMK 52670.
One of the great pleasures of the Gould LPs was their provocative album notes, often by Gould himself. His very first album (of the Bach Goldberg Variations on Columbia ML 5060) was accompanied by remarks that were so baffling (ie: The fundamental variative ambition of this work is not to be found in organic fabrication but in a community of sentiment.) that it was hard to tell if he was being brilliantly insightful or just pulling our legs (a tension that would often resurface in his writing). The wry Gouldian humor emerged in full force for his recording of the Liszt transcription of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony on MS 7095, which featured reprints of blisteringly negative reviews, all fabricated by Gould under various pretentious noms-de-plume (ie: Sir Humphrey Price-Davies snipes: Mr. Gould has been absent from British platforms these past few years and if this new CBS release is indicative of his current musical predilections, perhaps it is just as well). On the other hand, Gould's notes for the LP of the Hindemith Sonatas won a Grammy (his only one - he never won for any of the records themselves!). One would have hoped for a reprint as liner notes here, but instead we get extended nonsense translated from the German of Michael Stegemann attempting to analogize Gould's enthusiasm for the composer to playing the stock market. In any event, Hindemith provided the perfect vehicle for Gould to transmute his love and admiration for Bach to modern music, as Gould seized upon and exploited the composer's deep historical sense, formal precision and elegant means of expression and played Hindemith with the same clarity, urgent compulsion and intellectual vigor.
Hindemith: Sonatas for Brass and Piano: Trumpet (with Gilbert Johnson), Horn, Alto Horn in E-flat (both with Mason Jones), Bass Tuba (with Abe Torchinsky) and Trombone (with Henry Charles Smith). Sony SM2K 52671.
Gould teamed with members of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble to exemplify Hindemith's Gebrauchsmusik (utilitarian music). Among his 25 sonatas, many including these go well beyond the standard combination of piano with violin, cello or a handful of other popular instruments to present pieces that musicians could relish playing and audiences could enjoy exploring. Although it takes considerable talent to negotiate the nimble demands of the wonder-struck scores, there's no showy display or virtuosity. Rather, these pieces boast superb craftsmanship and deep invocation (but not imitation) of venerable forms, especially Bachian counterpoint and ornamentation of balanced lines, qualities that undoubtedly attracted Gould's devotion. Yet, the overall feel is unmistakably modern, reflecting Hindemith's reconception of tonality as a function of the acoustic overtones of fundamental notes. Of particular charm is the Alto Horn Sonata in which Hindemith prefaced the finale with a spoken dialogue (here read by Jones and Gould) which encapsulates his aesthetic credo: Your task it is, amid confusion, rush and noise, to grasp the lasting, calm and meaningful, and finding it anew, to hold and treasure it. A truly wonderful thought!
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll (Gould conducting members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra); Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Overture, Gotterdammerung: Daybreak and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, Siegfried Idyll (all piano transcriptions by Gould). Sony SMK 52650.
Gould reportedly had announced an intention to turn to conducting after he reached 50 and began planning an ambitious series of projects (not only of composers like Bach whom he already loved but Schubert, Mendelssohn and others he rarely played). But he never got the chance - three weeks after completing his very first record of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, he suffered a fatal stroke. Based on this one shred of evidence, it's hard to predict if he would have followed successfully in the footsteps of Bernstein, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Previn and so many others who traded in the keyboard for the baton. Would such an ardent individualist have been able to muster the ability to inspire and coordinate an entire ensemble? Yet, surely a musician with so many intriguing ideas would have been one of the most fascinating conductors of our time, an unabashed iconoclast of which the world of bland, commercialized musical product could always use a few more. At the risk of reading too much into a single piece, like Celibidache's comparably-paced reading of the full orchestral version (on EMI 56524), Gould's is a patient, slow-motion unfolding, although the distended chamber textures and scrappy mechanical playing sound awkward at such an extremely deliberate pace (24 1/2 minutes!). Yet, it's certainly different and for that reason alone is fascinating and valuable. Gould never shrunk from a musical challenge and for his only major foray into transcription tackled three daunting ones - projecting yet clarifying the massive contrapuntal texture of the Meistersinger Overture (although he cheated a bit by overdubbing a second piano toward the end), attempting to sustain the long, horizontal lines of the Siegfried Idyll on a percussion instrument, and conjuring a wealth of dazzling orchestral and vocal color in the Gotterdammerung prelude. For all his disdain of virtuoso performance, pedal effects and Lisztian arrangements, Gould does a remarkably credible job of it!
Berg: Sonata, Op. 1; Krenek: Sonata # 3; Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27; Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24 (ensemble conducted by Boris Brott); Debussy: Rhapsody # 1 (with James Campbell, clarinet); Ravel: La Valse. Sony SMK 52661.
More Gould surprises. The first is that a Bach specialist should have been so attracted to modern material which consciously attempted to break away from the system so integral to the entire previous development of classical music and in which Bach, for one, was so solidly grounded (although Gould never extended his interest to aleatory or non-Western music). The bristly Berg was one side of Gould's first commercial recording on the Canadian Hallmark label; this is his 1958 remake. In between, he had included it in his propitious American debut recitals in Washington and New York. The Krenek is 12-tone but wonderfully playful, eschewing the spacey plinks and grim directionlessness of the masters of the genre to suggest a comfortable transitional relationship to its tonal predecessors. The Webern is in a stricter 12-tone style, but Gould tries to humanize it with a sensitive and even sensual approach. The second surprise is the Debussy, a composer he played only this once; Gould projects an extraordinary intimacy, especially with graceful, precise scalar runs that emulate the elegance and delicacy of a harp. Finally, there is the stunning Ravel. Should anyone anywhere ever doubt that Gould was a full-blown virtuoso who had no technical limits and instead opted to restrict his taste and activity, let them hear this - lush, colorful, a miracle of control to balance clarity and complexity - with the only possible misgiving a rhythmic inflexibility that attenuates the excitement of the sweeping end.
Schoenberg: Complete Solo Piano Works, Opp. 11, 19, 23, 25 and 33; Piano Concerto (with the CBC Symphony Orchestra, Robert Craft conducting); Phastasy for Violin and Piano (with Israel Baker, violin), Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (with John Horton, reciter, and the Julliard String Quartet); Pierrot Lunaire, Part I (with Patricia Rideout, reciter, and chamber ensemble conducted by Gould). Sony SM2K 52644.
What's to say beyond the remarkable fact that Gould truly loved this important but difficult and unpopular music and proselytized by playing more of it both in concert and on records (as well as through his writings, lectures and radio and television shows) than any other musician of his stature? Gould venerated Schoenberg, and in a brilliant 1964 monograph placed him in a crucial historical role as having simplified the confusing tonal music of his predecessors much as the late Renaissance composers had done with the modal music of their time. Gould came to regard Schoenberg's piano music as the efficient means of launching each new chapter of his development, inexpensive to write for [and] instantly able to demonstrate the dangers and possibilities of a new vocabulary. Standard notions of artistic interpretation don't really apply, but a striking sense of commitment and devotion pervades and animates all these performances (although, as Gould later pointed out, Horton's bland recitation clashes with, rather than complements, the vigor of the instrumentalists in the Ode). A companion set of Schoenberg Songs is on SM2K 52667.
Glenn Gould Plays Contemporary Music. Morawetz: Fantasy in b minor; Anhalt: Fantasia; Hetu: Variations pour piano, Op. 8; Pentland: Ombres; Valen: Piano Sonata # 2, Op. 38. Sony SMK 52677.
In his notes to the 1967 LP (“Canadian Music in the 20th Century”) which presented the first three of these works, Gould noted that until World War II Canadian music had largely reflected the French and English camps that had divided the politics and generated the culture of his country, but then suddenly became internationalized with the infusion of post-war immigration, which brought a broad spectrum of compositional styles. (Much the same could be said of America – our music was a stilted relic of conservative European (mostly German) tradition until our own wave of migrants, who preceded Canada’s by two generations and thus enriched our culture that much sooner.) Indeed, Morawetz and Anhalt were Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia and Hungary who brought with them the modern European dodecaphonic style. Gould had given the world premiere of the Morawetz Fantasy in 1951. Although it has much of the percussive sound of early Prokofiev, it was structured with a sonata form, including thematic development and key relationships, to which Gould admitted his attraction. Gould further admired the “inventive serialism” of the Anhalt and the pianistic flair of Hetu’s writing. All three works, which Gould declared to be “important and arresting,” have a lyric undercurrent beneath their spiky exterior, especially as sensitively played by Gould. According to the CD notes by Michael Stegemann, despite Gould’s advocacy and enthusiasm, Hetu felt that Gould vastly mischaracterized his work, distending its pace, improperly personalizing it, and generally ignoring the composer’s instructions to such an extent that he likened the result to a photographic negative of the image he had sought (ie: constantly taking the diametric opposite approach to the composer’s intentions). The Pentland is a brief, spare and self-possessed atmospheric piece drawn with extreme economy of isolated overlapping reverberating notes. The collection is completed with Gould's previously-unreleased recording of the Second Sonata of Norwegian Fartein Velen which, despite its modern sound, evokes Baroque forms and perhaps for that reason came to fascinate Gould.
Consort of Musicke by Byrd and Gibbons. Sweelinck: Fantasia in D major; Gibbons: Fantasy in C, Allemonde (Italian Ground), "Lord of Salisbury" Pavan and Galliard; Byrd: First Pavane and Galliard; Sixth Pavane and Galliard; Hughe Ashton's Ground; A Voluntary; Sellinger's Round. Sony SMK 52589.
Gould insisted that his favorite composer of all was Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625). Indeed, he cited a Gibbons record by the Deller Consort as his top choice for a desert island disc, claiming that it had moved him more deeply than any other sound experience and that he had worn out three copies. This program of musicke of Gibbons and two of his Renaissance contemporaries is revelatory - stately but with great rhythmic sensitivity, heavily ornamented but sounding quite unpretentious, seemingly effortless but deeply moving. Compared to the rest of Gould's repertoire, this is very easy music with few technical demands. But sometimes the most enthralling performance of all is when a deeply sophisticated artist applies only a tiny portion of his huge arsenal of effects to find the underlying truth buried in places others would barely even bother to look.
Gould Meets Menuhin. Bach: Violin Sonata, BWV 1017; Beethoven: Violin Sonata, Op. 96; Schoenberg: Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47 (all with Yehudi Menuhin, violin). Sony SMK 52688.
Despite its disappointments, the primary value of Sony's Glenn Gould Edition was including previously unavailable broadcasts that immeasurably broaden our understanding of the Gould phenomenon. This one is devoted to the musical portion of a 1966 one-hour TV show (recorded in October 1965), although it's a shame that the commentary and spontaneous interviews are omitted; surely with this disc's running time of a mere 47 minutes, there was plenty of room for it. The performances are sharp and committed, but the story behind it is even more revealing. Apparently, Gould deeply admired Menuhin both as a musician and as a humanitarian, but couldn't resist trying to one-up him a bit by including the Schoenberg work which Menuhin didn't know and surely regarded as stylistically alien to his own mainstream musical taste. Yet, as Gould later recalled (as quoted in Michael Stegemann's liner notes): it was one of the great experiences of my life. In some miraculous way, Yehudi had absorbed that extraordinarily difficult piece literally overnight and played it with absolute reckless virtuosity. What was more important, though, ... was that he played it as though, for that moment at least, he loved it. Indeed, it does have considerably more of an emotional edge and deeper passion than the electrifyingly precise and equally fine version Gould had recorded with Israel Baker in 1964 (on Sony SM2K 52644).
Glenn Gould - The Composer. Gould: String Quartet, Op. 1; So You Want to Write a Fugue?; Lieberson Madrigal; Two Pieces for Piano; Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Piano Sonata (unfinished). Various artists (1992). Sony SK 47184.
Gould: String Quartet, Op. 1 (Symphonia Quartet, 1960), So You Want to Write a Fugue? Julliard Quartet (1963); Shostakovich: Quintet for Strings and Piano, Op. 57 (Glenn Gould, piano, with Symphonia Quartet); Poulenc: Aubade for Piano and Eighteen Instruments (Glenn Gould with ensemble conducted by Boris Brott). Sony SMK 52679.
Despite his fame as a performer, Gould often stated that he sought permanence in being remembered as a composer. That seems a curiously outdated attitude in our era, especially from one whose records have indeed invested him with a far greater measure of immortality than all but a few of his contemporaries who staked their reputations on composing. In any event, although Gould reportedly retired from concerts in part to have more time to write music, he never got very far toward achieving his goal. His Quartet in f minor is a single 35 minute movement which he wrote painstakingly over a period of two years. It's episodic and pleasant but not especially inspired or memorable. Nor is it original - it's biggest surprise is that it's written in the same lush, Viennese, late-Romantic turn-of-the-century idiom that Gould derided in others' hands. Gould explained that he intended it as an exercise (or perhaps an experiment) in style, taking Schoenberg's notion of unifying an entire work with a single motif (in this case four notes), but somewhat perversely applying that scheme to the harmonic ideas of the preceding era (ie: the very style which Schoenberg rebelled against and sought to supercede). Gould's only other published work is far more modest and far more effective - 30 years before Seinfeld's Kramer wrote his coffee table book about coffee tables, Gould wrote a fugue about how to write a fugue. It was first published as a flexible disc insert to High Fidelity magazine in 1964 and despite its brevity and modesty is clever, witty and boasts lots of catchy melodies, successfully invoking the style of Bach in which Gould was so thoroughly immersed.
Two performances of each are available: SMK 52679 contains those that Gould supervised in the early 'sixties, while SK 47184 was issued posthumously, produced in Paris in 1992 by Bruno Monsaingeon, a violinist who had produced many of Gould's broadcasts. The earlier version of the Quartet is angular, direct and objective, while the latter is lush, romantic and smooth and, to me at least, better unifies this sprawling piece and maintains greater interest during its longeurs. In the Fugue, though, the overly dramatic and emphatic French forces drown Gould's dry humor in operatic convention, while the earlier performance preserves his extraordinary sense of Baroque style with greater vigor and clarity, more tightly controlled dynamics and pacing and a more careful blend of voices and strings.
SMK 52679 is filled out with two Canadian TV broadcasts featuring Gould's typically clean, precise playing, an abstract style that makes no attempt to emulate the strong national idioms that characterize each piece. Thus, there's nothing distictively Russian about the performance of the Shostakovich Quintet, especially when compared to the composer's own reading with the Beethoven Quartet, cut shortly after the 1940 premiere, which has a thrilling improvisatory feel and seems to seethe with passion (but perhaps that's due in part to the overloaded sound). Unfortunately, perhaps to fit within broadcast time constraints, it's shorn of two inner movements; ironically, one of these, a wickedly brittle little scherzo, would have been particularly suited to Gould's lean and clipped standard style. Nor is there anything quintessentially French about the Aubade, when contrasted to the sly vitality of Poulenc's own reading (on Pearl CD 9311).
SK 47184 is completed with more Gould compositions, but all are unpublished juvenilia that are of less intrinsic musical interest than as a portrait of the artist as a very young man who hadn't yet found himself artistically. As attempts to write in the dodecaphonic style with which he was enthralled at the time, they succeed in sounding just about as aloof as the real stuff. The most effective is the incomplete Piano Sonata, of which the first movement emulates the sort of dramatic sustained bass rumbling Gould professed to abhor in Liszt and the second recalls the quiet reflection of Scriabin miniatures. Aside from the brief and intentionally derivative So You Want to Write a Fugue?, it's a shame that, despite his ambitions and intentions, Gould left no musical works of significance or original inspiration. Yet, as pointed out in Monsaingeon's liner notes to SK 47184, Gould did achieve a substantial body of compositions in the form of his heavily-edited radio interview shows - although perhaps not music in the conventional sense, they are, nonetheless, true musical compositions in the structural sense, exploiting all the rhythmic, contrapuntal and harmonic parameters of the spoken voice. Unfortunately, none is currently available.
Gould's own writings are collected in A Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page (Vintage Books, 1990). Otto Friedrich's Glenn Gould - A Life and Variations (Random House, 1989) is a fine biography with logs of concerts and broadcasts and a thorough discography, while Dr. Peter Ostwald's Glenn Gould - The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius (Norton, 1997) focuses on Gould's fascinating phobias and character. This article is indebted to all three volumes. If you're into the web (you're reading this, aren't you?) Gould has inspired several informative sites; in particular be sure to check the National Library of Canada site, which features a profusely illustrated biography, a detailed chronology, lengthy audio clips and writings by and about Gould.
All of Gould's Columbia recordings and a number of broadcasts and concerts are collected in the 69 CDs of Sony's Glenn Gould Edition. Unfortunately for consumers, the discs are often only half-filled (ie: Brahms and Haydn sets run barely 80 minutes yet are sprawled over 2 discs) yet the most popular volumes (including most of the Bach) are full-priced (although in early 2001 Sony knocked many of the others down to mid-price). (Fortunately, the complete Beethoven and Mozart sonatas are still available on budget Odyssey versions.) And while the Edition includes many Canadian performances previously unreleased (at least not officially), it still falls short of being definitive - it replaces Gould's fascinating liner notes with generic stuff, substitutes uniform covers for the witty originals and, most troubling of all, improves the sound by smoothing out the specific sonorities for which Gould had striven. So if you have the original LPs, cherish them; otherwise, the Glenn Gould Edition will surely beckon with its riches.
September 2002 Update:While I've dwelled on his less conventional stuff, when all is said and done Gould's immortality rests solidly upon his magnificent Bach, of which he taped nearly the entire solo keyboard oeuvre (plus the concerti and violin and viola da gamba sonatas) throughout a recording career bracketed by his acclaimed 1955 and 1981 Goldberg Variations. Now all but the sonatas and the Well-Tempered Clavier have reappeared in a new Glenn Gould Anniversary Edition. The new CDs generally follow the programming of the Glenn Gould Edition, but with the former double-disc sets split into separate volumes, the French Suites all on a single disc and the two Goldbergs packaged into a 3-disc set with outtakes and a fascinating interview that reveals the pianist as insightful, charming, witty, self-effacing and wonderfully articulate. They're mid-priced, reproduce the original LP covers (but, alas, not the LP notes), and are housed in nifty paper packages the same size as a jewel-box but without all that wasteful plastic. The engineering seems the same as on the Glenn Gould Edition, with one notable exception - the 1981 Goldbergs, formerly available only in a rather crude-sounding digital format (even the original LP issue was derived from it), appear for the first time in a transfer of a far richer analog backup tape. If you have the earlier discs or the LPs there's no need to replace them. If not, though, by all means indulge!
Copyright 2001 - 2003 by Peter Gutmann