The first two public figures whose deaths emotionally affected me both died 25 years ago: Thelonious Monk on February 17, 1982, and then Glenn Gould on October 4. It was partly because they were pianists, and as a pianist myself -- not that I was ever any good, but a decade-plus of lessons creates an identity for one -- I had paid a great deal of attention to their work. I identified with them because they played how I would have played, if I had not utterly lacked the skills to. (Monk I will discuss next week, when the 90th anniversary of his birth rolls around.)
Gould I knew of because my favorite composer was Bach. For an American Bach fanatic in the 1970s, Gould was the obvious pianistic template, had been ever since he went against all received wisdom in 1955 by making his Columbia Records debut (not his first album, but his 1953 10" LP for a small Canadian label is quite obscure) with a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, back when Bach's music was considered esoteric, not suitable fodder with which a mainstream pianist could dazzle audiences. (This impression was reinforced by the sole Bach pianist of note active when Gould came along, Rosalyn Tureck, who was the epitome of dull, pedantic playing.) Gould exploded that misconception, and it made him a star. How much of a star? How many other classical pianists can you think of who were interviewed by Rolling Stone?
Born in 1932, in 1947 Gould played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, albeit at a school concert. In January 1955 he made his U.S. debut; the morning after his January 11 recital at The Town Hall in New York City of a typically unusual program of Gibbons, Sweelinck, Bach, Webern, late Beethoven, and Berg, he was offered a contract by Columbia, for which he recorded for the rest of his life.
He gave his last concert in 1964, though he continued radio and TV performance; he preferred the studio to the stage. That was far from his only eccentricity. He wore a coat (with layers underneath), scarf, gloves (also layered), and hat even in the warmest weather. He played all his concerts using not a piano stool but rather a wooden chair with adjustable legs that his father had made, which tied in with an extremely unusual piano technique that, among other things, involved sitting as low as possible and bending over the keyboard, utterly unlike the classical norm. He was nearly a hermit, preferring to communicate via late-night phone calls. He had a fondness for theatrics such as interviewing himself and creating a variety of fictional personalities. He hummed (uncontrollably, he said) during his recordings, leaving the engineers to try to eliminate the sound, rarely with much success. In concerto performances, he compulsively conducted when his hands were unoccupied by the piano part, to the annoyance of some of the actual conductors.
Even musically speaking, he was as much of an iconoclast as any classical performer of his generation. He was abnormally devoted to his personal Steinway piano, which he had rebuilt to his specifications in 1960 to produce the light action and dry tone he preferred (and he was an absolutely distinctive pianist on tone alone). He used it for all of his subsequent recordings, even his 1964 Bach Two- and Three-Part Inventions at a time when the instrument didn't function correctly and repeated some notes (he called it a "hiccup"), which makes that album an excruciating listening experience despite the finest interpretive performance of those cycles ever committed to disc. He eschewed the bulk of the standard piano repertoire, and subjected some of what he did play to odd interpretations, most notoriously his bizarre, downright disrespectful cycle of the complete Mozart piano sonatas (he infamously said that Mozart had died too late, not too young). When he died (he had a stroke two days after his 50th birthday, and was taken off life support a week later), he was in the process of giving up playing the piano and was moving into conducting. His last recording, in fact, was of him conducting Wagner's Siegfried Idyll.
One benefit of Gould having abandoned concretizing so early was that he had time to be prolific in the studio. The fact that he inspired worshipful followers has made it easy for Sony to keep the vast majority of his recordings in print, as they continue to find an enthusiastic audience. The following recommended recordings are looked at in order of the composers' historical contexts. Gould did much more good work than what's contained in this survey -- the Bach section alone could easily be five times longer -- so consider this an introduction that attempts to balance his peaks and his breadth.
Consort of Musicke by William Byrd & Orlando Gibbons
These two British composers from the Tudor era sometimes offer contrapuntal delights aplenty, so it's easy to understand why Gould loved them. He even proclaimed Gibbons (1583-1625, born a century before Bach), "my favorite composer" (though more on account of his choral anthems) and spoke of his "music of supreme beauty." This is even more eccentric fare for a pianist to program than Bach, but that famous 1955 Town Hall recital featured Gibbons's "Lord of Salisbury" Pavan and Galliard, one of the highlights of the present collection. Of the even earlier Byrd (1540-1623), he said, "Byrd is both an extrovert and a nostalgist, and that combination is not just effective -- it's absolutely irresistible." Sweelinck's Fantasia in D major (Fantasia cromatica), an organ piece, is added as a bonus from a 1964 CBC TV broadcast, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) being another pre-Bach keyboard composer Gould had great fondness for (and Gould spent his formative years also working as an organist). This Fantasia is another favorite work that Gould programmed at Town Hall. This is an entirely charming disc.
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
My favorite of Gould's four recordings of his signature piece comes from his 1959 Salzburg recital (pianist Murray Perahia agrees with me). True, there are occasional slight flaws that naturally arise in live, unedited performance, but there's also more singing tone and more plush phrasing at some points. And the rest of the recital is pretty amazing as well: a lush reading of the same Sweelinck as above, an epochal reading of Schoenberg's Piano Suite Op. 25, and a reading of Mozart's Piano Sonata K.330 that's considerably less perverse than Gould's later studio reading, if still rather stiff and unfeeling. That Sony/BMG has not kept this masterful recital in print or intact, while at the same time promulgating multiple editions of Gould's 1955 and 1981 Goldbergs (four of the former, three of the latter, the three-CD A Sense of Wonder set including both, and French and American box sets replicating Gould's Bach LPs), is preposterous. That said, there is a CD in Sony's Glenn Gould edition (catalog #52685) that combines the Salzburg Goldberg Variations with Three-Part Inventions Nos. 2-15 from a Moscow recital. Get it before they change their minds and delete it. Don't -- unless you're a Gould fanatic -- bother with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) disc of his 1954 recording, made before his interpretation had crystallized. But all Gould fans would be well served by having '55, '59, and '81, as he does not repeat himself. On its release in 1956, the young Canadian pianist's dashing flair in this supposedly stodgy repertoire caught the public's fancy; the LP nudged a Louis Armstrong album from the top of the chart. Gould's precise technique allowed him to clearly separate the strands of counterpoint (additionally, he used very little sustain pedal, also unusual for pianists then). The '55 and '81 recordings, both regarded as canonical, are often set up as polar opposites, but the differences, though real, are often exaggerated by commentators. The two truly large divergences are that Gould took no repeats in '55 but takes them in a third of the variations in '81, and in '81 he uses a vastly slower tempo for the aria that bookends the variations than he did in '55. The dashing, daring, technical brilliance of '55 (in mono sound, though that's absolutely no impediment to listening pleasure) is exhilarating, while most of that brilliance remains in '81, augmented here and there by greater depth of feeling. The Salzburg reading has the best of both worlds and more, though. Whatever you do, though, don't get Sonya's latest milking of Gould/Goldberg, a Zenph Studios "reperformance" that takes Gould's '55 reading, inputs it into a computer program that codifies its interpretive nuances, and then plays it back on a nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier Pro. Apparently aimed at listeners who just can't stand to hear Gould hum and really need stereo, it's an abomination that sounds not like Gould, but rather a Gould imitator copying everything but his distinctive tone, and since Gould considered that tone such an integral part of the interpretation, this CD really misses the point. (If this technology were going to be usefully applied anywhere in Gould's oeuvre, it would be to the Inventions, to compensate for the flawed piano on that recording.)
J.S. Bach: Well Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869 J.S. Bach: Well Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870-893
Gould felt that counterpoint was the highest activity to which piano music could aspire, so of course this traversal of these immortal 48 Preludes and Fugues was a very important project for him. It took him ten years, basically working his way through the pieces in order. He started in 1962 and finished Book I in '65, whereupon it was issued; in '66 he began Book II, finishing in '71, by which point he was recording in his hometown of Toronto rather than in New York. Even more than the Goldberg Variations, these pieces were considered more teaching tools than audience-impressers. Not in the rip-roaring renditions Gould gave us. Not that there's only one mood here; Gould is thoroughly musical, albeit on his terms alone. So the E-minor Prelude (Book I No. 10), slightly faster than one might expect, is subtly menacing rather than lyrical, while the following Fugue is an explosion (though a strictly controlled explosion) of notes spraying in every direction, the pent-up tension of the Prelude finding release. Though Gould's prodigious technique is certainly on display in many of these readings, there's rarely any sense of the mechanical; each pair of pieces becomes an individualized experience. That's why these long cycles are engrossing rather than exhausting. In the years since, a few pianists have arguably equaled Gould's achievement here, but he has not been surpassed, and he remains thoroughly unique. J.S. Bach: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5, 7 Giving the people what they want, Gould and Columbia both kept up the flow of Bach and sometimes paired these concertos with Beethoven concertos. Nowadays, of course, they are kept compartmentalized. While solo Bach on piano is still quite accepted even after all the period-instrument recordings of the past forty years, Bach concertos with piano (and, for that matter, full modern orchestra) are far less often heard now, so this sound may take some getting used to for some listeners and may seem more old-fashioned. It was certainly thrilling enough at the time, and remains so for the open-minded. The austerity of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra's readings, mostly under Vladimir Golschmann (1958 for No. 5, '67 or '69 for the rest) but with Leonard Bernstein in No. 1 (1957, mono), stands out more in the minor-key concertos, while the major-key works naturally present a sunnier face.
F.J. Haydn: Six Late Piano Sonatas (Hob. XVI: 42, 48-52)
Gould finally acted on his love of Haydn with these 1980-81 recordings (this album was his last to appear during his life). The playing is not like anyone else's Haydn playing: roughly, Baroque in the fast movements but with Romantic touches in the slow movements. His trademark clarity is well-suited to the outside movements, where he takes relatively fleet tempos, while he plays the slow movements very slowly, tenderly in fact, and with more interpretive inflection than the clichés about his playing would indicate. But Haydn's great wit also gets full interpretive play.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5
It's a bit surprising that Gould is so successful throughout this set. Well, not so surprising in No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, an early work he had an abiding affection for precisely because it still related strongly to Classicism rather than Romanticism. His sparkling 1958 reading (CSO/Golschmann) is entirely fresh, not least in his use of his own innovative cadenzas, far more contrapuntal (which he characterized, aptly, as "a rather Regerian fugue") than authentically Beethovenian in the opening movement. The same affection and brilliance are apparent in his first concerto recording for Columbia (in 1957 for his fourth Columbia LP), No. 2 in B-flat major, partnered more impressively with Bernstein and the CSO. Bernstein returns for Nos. 3 (CSO, 1959) and 4 (New York Philharmonic, 1961). Gould disliked the clichés of both masculine/feminine and orchestra/soloist contrasts, preferring structural integration and cooperation over competition, so these are kinder, gentler readings compared to much of the competition, which isn't to say that sparks are not struck. It's unfortunate that iTunes only offers one of the Beethoven concerti (as far as I can tell), but at least it's the Fifth, a very special collaboration with one of Gould's heroes, conductor Leopold Stokowski, leading his American Symphony Orchestra. "I can recall no collaborative experience which has brought me greater satisfaction or greater joy," he declared years later.
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. II
Gould was hardly an unequivocal admirer of Beethoven's piano sonatas; he made it clear, in fact, that he didn't much like the heroic works of the middle period, and No. 23, the "Appassionata," he just plain despised. His 1967 reading is downright perverse, the least passionate ever, fascinating only in its absolutely venomous wrongness. He is barely more convincing in No. 17, the "Tempest," which required sessions in 1960, '67, and '71, and the other two Op. 31 works. The 1979 "Pastorale" (No. 15), if also unorthodox and seemingly resistant to anything that might reinforce its title, is at least structurally satisfying. The earliest recordings here, the 1956 mono traversal of the last three sonatas (Nos. 30-32), were his follow-up to his '55 Goldbergs, and as much rapture as the Bach had inspired, just as much aghast reaction came from the critics and fellow pianists. With the Bach he'd been on fresh territory; on these three iconic pieces from the piano canon, his highly personal interpretations (and omission of some repeats in No. 30) left him open to withering criticism. He certainly went against expectations, perhaps willfully so, but looking back on them five decades later, even though they are far from first choices in the repertoire, it is possible for open-minded listeners to accept them as valid, sort of alternate-universe interpretations that spotlight usually overlooked facets of these works. No survey of Gould's work is really complete without some evidence of his outrageousness and provocative stances.
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
Even the staidly conservative British critics of The Penguin Guide, who normally have little complimentary to say about Gould outside of Bach, are willing to grant that on this set, "any eccentricity is positive and thought-provoking." To some degree Gould was just temperamentally better suited to variation form than sonata form; furthermore, the relative non-canonical nature of these works allows for more divergence of interpretation. Gould may exaggerate or over-dramatize the contrasts between variations, but in the heat of the moment it seems quite compelling. In his 1974 readings of the two sets of Bagatelles, the eccentricity of interpretation seems to come not from perversity but from a greater love of the pieces than most pianists have, a love expressed in some lingering tempi.
Brahms: 4 Ballades/2 Rhapsodies/10 Intermezzi
The 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) were recorded in 1960, while the Ballades, Op. 10, and the Rhapsodies, Op. 79, come from 1982 sessions. Unlike his notorious reading of Brahms's First Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the music here is not eccentrically interpreted (though I suppose some might quibble with his slightly dry, detached phrasing in the Second Rhapsody). One of the great anomalies in Gould's discography is that despite his oft-stated dislike of most of the Romantic composers (between Beethoven and those who came to prominence at the end of the 19th century), especially their piano music, his Brahms playing here is magnificent. "Autumnal" is an adjective frequently applied to Brahms's music, but the '82 performances earn it more than most. Of the Intermezzi Gould wrote, "This is one of the things I am most proud of, and I really think it is perhaps the best piano-playing I have done."
Schoenberg: Piano Works
Gould was a great admirer of the composers of what's called the Second Viennese School -- the serialists Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg - though not only their 12-tone pieces. In fact, the intense emotion of his playing on Schoenberg's earlier Expressionist pieces (3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11; 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 19; 5 Little Piano Pieces, Op. 23 [excepting No. 5, the first serial piece]) is startling, and absolutely riveting in his evocation of a shadowy, psychologically troubling world -- call it Romanticism -- even as he simultaneously makes the structures crystalline. Of the Suite for Piano, Op. 25, Gould wrote, "I can think of no composition for solo piano from the first quarter of this century which can stand as its equal.... It is among the most spontaneous and wickedly inventive of Schoenberg's works." He was less enamored of the 2 Piano Pieces, Op. 33a & 33b, but invested them with sufficient intensity to relate them to the earlier works. He recorded Op. 11 in 1958, the rest in 1964-65. The Concerto for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 42, which he gave the Canadian premiere of in 1953, was recorded in 1961 with the CBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft and is an enthralling bit of advocacy that could be considered the first great recording of this masterpiece. He manages to imbue the piano's somewhat dry role with not only urgency but also a nearly voluptuous sheen. Gould's love of Schoenberg was so great that he recorded all the pieces (then know) with piano; also included here are the Fantasy for Violin & Piano, Op. 47 (with Israel Baker on violin) and the frankly unsatisfying work Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41 (with reciter John Horton and the Juilliard String Quartet), plus a much later reading for CBC broadcast of Part 1 of Pierrot Lunaire where Gould is both pianist and conductor. A separate CD shows him bringing his talents to bear on the accompaniments to Schoenberg's songs, well worth acquiring. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who freelances as a developmental editor. He's a terrible pianist, but he knows a good one when he hears him or her.