ANNIVERSARIES: Glenn Gould Born 80 Years Ago


It was playing Bach that brought Canadian pianist Glenn Gould worldwide fame when his recording of the Goldberg Variations – at the time, 1955, a rather esoteric corner of the repertoire – and certainly a hefty percentage of his albums over the course of his career were devoted to the German Baroque master's keyboard output. But in celebrating the 80th anniversary of his birth on September 25, 1932 (and looking forward with sadness to the 30th anniversary of his death of a stroke on October 4, 1982), it's worth remembering that he was interested in many more composers. I didn't have to make too much of a conscious effort to diversify this baker's-dozen list until I got down to the last two spots. (All the recommended recordings were issued by Columbia Records/CBS Masterworks/Sony Classical.)

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Sweelinck: Fantasia in D major; Schoenberg: Piano Suite Op. 25; Mozart: Piano Sonata K.330

Yes, this 1959 Salzburg concert recording featuring the Goldberg Variations -- the piece that made him famous -- is a controversial recommendation, I suppose. The debate in this piece is usually framed as a choice between his two studio recordings, which, as commentators are so fond of pointing out, also framed his career: his first LP for Columbia, back in 1955, and the last released the year of his death in 1982 (life never being that neat, the '55 was not his first recording, nor was the '81 his last). Both of those are well worth acquiring, of course -- but Gould fans have them already, anyway. (Whatever you do, though, avoid the Zenph edition where Gould's '55 recording was fed into a computer that then played it back on a piano recorded in modern digital sound. Though the '55 recording is mono, it's perfectly good mono, crisp and clear, and mono vs. stereo doesn't matter much for a single instrument. And yes, Gould's humming is eliminated that way, but so were the unique sound of his piano (instead of his beloved Steinway, a Yamaha is used) and the close recording perspective, so it doesn't sound like Gould, but rather like someone imitating aspects of his interpretation. If Sony had really wanted to do us a service, they would have applied this technology to his recordings of the Sinfonias and Inventions, which remain plagued by a technical problem with the action of the piano.)

Anyway, what about this recording? How can I prefer it to his studio recordings when Gould so disliked giving concerts that he quit doing it in 1964 and never went back? (That was an extraordinary move for a classical pianist, and still would be.) Well, he was, frankly speaking, a control freak, and quite pedantic and given to the mental creation of thoroughly calculated systems, or obsessions, into which he would then fit his performance of a piece. The extremes to which he would take this sort of behavior led not only to his infamously unsympathetic performances of late Mozart and the middle-period Beethoven sonatas, it even included rewriting pieces. Even Bach himself, it seems, was not a good enough composer for Gould, who deleted 14 measures from the Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910 (Kevin Bazzana's fascinatingly detailed 1997 book Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work [Oxford University Press] is informative on this topic and many others). My point is that in concert, when he was less strict and controlling than in the studio, he delivered a warmer and more ingratiating performance of the Goldberg Variations than he did in either of the generally recommended recordings. True, there are two spots where he is not technically perfect, but even in '55 he'd had one miniscule bobble; his technique was so great that  he was able to play in concert with the same dashing verve that typified the '55 studio recording with such tiny sacrifice that the gains of warmer tone and more breathing room for the music outweigh those two brief moments of barely noticeable fallibility.

That we also get the Sweelinck (1:29 broader than his later CBC studio version, and all the better for that -- and in less claustrophobic sound to boot!), Schoenberg, and Mozart (on best behavior in Mozart's hometown, so less perverse than his later studio Mozart) makes this an even more irresistible acquisition.

This recital, out of print but being reissued by Sony on 10/30, is unfortunately not currently available on iTunes, but there's an album containing the Salzburg Goldbergs plus Bach Sinfonias from a Moscow recital. Or you could wait a month.

Consort of Musicke by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons; Sweelinck: Fantasia in D major

Gould proclaimed Gibbons (1583-1625) his favorite composer, though apparently it was Gibbons's anthems, heard in Gould's youth, that inspired that status. Nonetheless, Gould's enthusiasm where counterpoint was concerned made him explore Gibbons's works for virginal (a small chamber keyboard long pre-dating the piano), and Gibbons's "Lord of Salisbury" Pavan and Galliard made it into Gould's concert repertoire early on (1952). Byrd (1543-1623) was a far more prolific composer of keyboard works, and whereas Gibbons is represented here only by the aforementioned work, the Fantasy in C major, and a brief Allemande, altogether totaling a bit over 11 minutes, there are five Byrd pieces adding up to over 31 minutes. His sprightly rhythms in the bravura pieces, and his songful phrasing in the pieces he plays for pathos, are complemented in either case by his stylish and profuse ornamentation. One can hear his great affection for this material. When Sony compiled this CD in 1992, they threw in a the Sweelinck, which was part of Gould's concert repertoire from the moment he became famous (his January 1955 New York debut recital, which inspired Columbia to sign him) to the last time he trod the stage in 1964, the year he recorded it for the CBC, providing us with an interesting virtuoso complement to the more measured concert rendition of five years earlier (see above).

Schoenberg: 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11; 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 19; 5 Little Piano Pieces, Op. 23; Suite for Piano, Op. 25; 2 Piano Pieces, Op. 33a & 33b; #Concerto for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 42; @Fantasy for Violin & Piano, Op. 47; ^Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41; *Pierrot Lunaire: 7 Songs

#CBC Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft, conductor; @Israel Baker, violin; ^John Horton, reciter/Juilliard String Quartet; *Patricia Rideout, reciter/Chamber Ensemble/Glenn Gould, conductor

Gould was a big fan of the Second Viennese School. This two-CD set isn't even all of his Schoenberg (he also recorded all of the songs in the role of accompanist, and though I'm not fond of the heavy vocal timbres of some of the singers, a hauntingly inflected rendition with mezzo‑soprano Helen Vanni of the cycle Book of the Hanging Gardens is well worth hearing.) The present set is most important for the complete solo piano works (not including the fragments one pianist included but that the vast majority omit). Gould plays these short pieces with such character that some listeners may even find it disconcerting; this is neither the stern modernism of Maurizio Pollini nor the autumnal post-Romanticism of Paul Jacobs. There is even, I swear, humor in some of them. The Concerto is also superb, and Gould's advocacy for the too-infrequently-heard Phantasy is much appreciated; alas, Pierrot lunaire is just Part I (another CBC taping), and the Ode is dragged down by its recitation even more than usual. But for the solo works and the Concerto, this is a must-own set.

Brahms: 4 Ballades, Op. 10; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Intermezzi Op. 117 Nos. 1-3; Op 118 Nos. 1-2/6; Op. 116 No. 4; Op. 76 Nos. 6-7; Op. 119 No. 1

People were astonished when Gould recorded the Brahms Intermezzi in 1960, and again when, in 1982, he recorded the Rhapsodies and the Ballades. It wasn't just the repertoire, atypical for Gould; it was just how Romantically he played it. He wasn't normally generous with rubato, but just listen to the Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118 No. 2: it's as though Vladimir de Pachmann were at the piano (minus the wrong notes). This was surprising from a pianist who rejected the validity of much of the Romantic period's thinking regarding the piano. Critics and listeners were not so surprised, of course, that this iconoclast's Brahms included some eccentric interpretive choices, particularly in terms of tempos (sometimes much faster or much slower than the norms) and his penchant for bringing out inner voices. "I have captured, I think, an atmosphere of improvisation which I don't believe has ever been represented in Brahms recordings before," Gould wrote." There is a quality as though...I were really playing for myself, but left the door open." And Gould undoubtedly felt more sympathy for Brahms -- who revered the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque masters, was adept at counterpoint, and pioneered the concept of developing variation that so fascinated Schoenberg -- than he did for Chopin or Liszt. The emotive results of these two sessions, two decades apart, seem deeply heartfelt, and their eccentricities merely serve to emphasize how dramatically Gould played them. The only complaint I have is that, considering the rather skimpy timing of this two-CD set, it could have also included his early-'70s Intermezzi recordings.

Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1; Krenek: Piano Sonata No. 3; Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27; Concerto, Op. 24; Debussy: Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano; Ravel: La valse

This recommendation has nothing to do with the last two listed items (Gould never cared for most French piano music; their presence is due to Sony using some CBC broadcast tapings as filler). Instead, no surprise here, it's for more love shown to the Second Viennese School. Based on how often he played it, Gould must have adored the Berg, which is, after all, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century piano literature. The Krenek is less acclaimed, but Gould makes the best case for it. Both Webern pieces are touchstones of 12-tone music. Gould's utter commitment to the 12-tone works here shines through in riveting performances.

J.S. Bach: French Suites, Nos. 1‑6, BWV 812-17

Some of Gould's Bach playing is problematic -- his Italian Concerto sounds like it was recorded grudgingly, under duress -- and see my comments below about WTC II. The French Suites, however, are impeccable. Aside from the Goldbergs, this is Gould's most joyous Bach playing. Some of the slow movements are downright sensual! I also find his ornamentation especially graceful in these mid-'70s recordings.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Hob. XVI: 42, 48-52

Gould's sense of humor, though not admired by all, was an important part of his personality, and the music of the equally impish Haydn provided an interpretive outlet for it. Gould's touch and the pearly yet utterly clear sound it produces is highly suited to Haydn, as are his rakishly dashing fast movements. He plays up the contrasts, and his effervescence is irresistible in these 1980-81 recordings.

J.S. Bach: Well‑Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869

My theory why the first volume of the WTC is less afflicted by Gouldian sourness than the second is that most of Book I was recorded before Gould retired from concerts, whereas all of Book II came later. Though he didn't like it, it seems to me that playing before the public could have some moderating influence on how steadfastly he clung to his intellectualizations of the music (though one cannot generalize too strictly about this). Certainly he has some ideas of his own even in Book I, but they are more persuasive and less outré than in Book II, where his disdain for the preludes ("just prosaically prefatory") and his obsession with making them as similar to the fugues they're yoked to leads to weirdness. Needless to say, he revels in the contrapuntal mastery of Bach's fugues, and the clarity of the independent lines is extraordinary.

J.S. Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1, 4, & 5

Keyboard Concertos Nos. 2, 3, & 7

Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Golschmann, conductor, except No. 1: Leonard Bernstein

On this two-disc set, No. 1 is from 1957, and in mono, with Bernstein at the helm. It exudes a fierce, volcanic energy. After that, Gould chose to work with the vastly more tractable conductor Vladimir Golschmann; it's assumed that it was because of the latter's death in 1972 that Gould didn't complete the cycle. Though still overflowing with energy, his work with Golschmann is more elegant, the rhythms more dance-like, though still emphatic. What I wouldn't give for the technique to be able to play the trills in No. 2 with the same power and precision that allowed Gould to reel them off so nonchalantly! The contrast of Gould's sparkling tone with the plush strings is exquisite.

J.S. Bach: Partitas Nos. 1-3, BWV 825-827; 6 Little Preludes, BWV 933-38; Fugues, BWV 952-53; Prelude & Fughetta, BWV 895; Preludes & Fughettas, BWV 899-900 & 902; Fughetta, BWV 961

Partitas Nos. 4-6, BWV 828-830; from 9 Little Preludes, BWV 924-32: 924-28 & 930

I'm happy to have the little works, recorded near the end of Gould's career, that fill out these two albums. It's the Partitas, though -- recorded in 1957-63, when he was in his prime -- that I cherish. They burst from the speakers with irrepressible momentum.

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5

Glenn Gould, piano; Columbia Symphony Orchestra (1-3), New York Philharmonic (4), American Symphony Orchestra (5); Vladimir Golschmann (1), Leonard Bernstein (2-4), Leopold Stokowski (5)

Recorded mostly in Gould's concert-giving days (No. 1 in '58, No. 2 in '57, No. 3 in '59, and No. 4 in '61), but with the remarkable collaboration of Gould and Stokowski in the "Emperor" not coming until 1966. Gould had serious misgivings about the entire concept of the concerto form, though he nonetheless had some fondness for all of these except, apparently, the Third. Rethinking them, sometimes drastically, in order to bring them out of the standard soloist-vs.-orchestra stance into something more cohesive led to some very interesting but entirely valid interpretive decisions, not the least of which includes his most un-Beethovenesque fugal cadenza in the first movement of the First. The outer movements are, aside from that cadenza, dazzling, and nicely contrasted with the cool beauty of the middle Largo. The Second, despite the switch in conductors, is fairly similar in approach. The Third is the only time here where Gould sounds uncomfortable. In the Fourth, Gould's willful revisionism -- emphasis of the left hand, split chords, his usual obsession with bringing out inner voices -- gels rather well into an intriguing new vision of the work, which Bernstein mostly goes along with until a bit of tempo push-pull near the end. The Fifth has what Gould called a "martial melancholy," which effectively undercuts everything of its concerto-character that Gould presumably disapproved of; he was a huge fan of Stokowski, and their merits are wonderfully complementary here. This should be nobody's reference set for the cycle, but it's fascinating and compelling. This too is about to be reissued by Sony at the end of October, and at two-for-one pricing.

Hindemith: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Yes, it often seems as though Gould's interpretations arise from a contrarian impulse, but here that pays great dividends. Most performances of Hindemith sound didactic and rote, and not without reason given the composer's own tendencies in those directions. Yes, Gould revels in Hindemith's counterpoint, but he also makes these pieces sound weird, dramatic, mysterious, and somehow simultaneously modern yet Romantic -- hence more compelling than the competition's renditions.

Beethoven: 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80; 5 Variations in F major, Op. 34; 15 Variations with Fugue in E-flat major, Op. 35 "Eroica"; 7 Bagatelles, Op. 33; 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126

Gould seemed to have far more affection for Beethoven's variations (recorded in 1966-67 and '70), and even the little Bagatelles ('74), than he did for most of his sonatas. This is a surprisingly charming album. 

Check out my review of a new book about Gould. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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