Saturday, July 19, 2008

Glenn Gould Revisited

Every so often I have cause to remember why pianist Glenn Gould has played such a large role in my musical life. It all goes back to 1955 and his earth-shaking debut recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. At that time Baroque music was just beginning its resurgence of popular interest, and Gould was the first mainstream keyboard artist whose reputation was made as an interpreter of "antique" music (notwithstanding the exceptions of Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord and Albert Schweitzer and E. Power Biggs on the organ).

[Check out this video of the young Gould at work for a quick 3 minute taste.]

Gould's performance was, and still is, revolutionary. He demonstrated an entirely new way to animate Bach's glorious counterpoint. His playing was neither the mechanical precision of the conservatory nor the romanticized emotionalism of those who tried to modernize it to resemble Chopin and Liszt. Gould's rendering was always precise -- amazingly so, with every voice distinct from the others -- yet spiked with joyful accents and sweeping melodic lines. He utilized the full dynamic range of the modern piano, but with the sensitive staccato phrasing of a harpsichord. Under his capable hands the music danced and sang. You could almost call it jazzy, yet there was a rightness about it that made you feel confident that Bach would have approved if he could have heard it.

I was too young at the time to participate in the excitement, but I remember that my parents (both pianists themselves) made a point of attending Gould's only performance in Miami. I don't remember what they heard him play, but they often told the story about how the eccentric Canadian dealt with the frigid and unheated Dade County Auditorium on one of the coldest nights of the year: He came on stage wearing an overcoat and woolen gloves. Without bowing to acknowledge the applause, he stripped off the coat and gloves, blew on his fingers, and proceeded to play. When he was finished, again without a bow, he donned his clothes and walked off.

Of course that was not the most eccentric thing Gould ever did. His many foibles included a squeaky wooden chair, much too low by common standards, that drove sound engineers crazy. And his habit of humming and singing while he played could never be entirely restrained, with the result that you can sometimes hear him plainly on some of his best recordings. This trait was so notorious that it was once the butt of a cartoon in a hi-fi magazine that showed an audiophile leaving the store with an expensive piece of sound gear called a "Glenn Gould Hum Filter."

But by far the most controversial thing he did (other than abandoning tuxedos and wearing plain business suits in concert) was deciding, at the peak of his career, to stop performing in public altogether. Henceforth, he announced, he would only make recordings, and would have what he called a "one to none" relationship with his audience. What a nerve! But it speaks volumes for how popular he had become that the audience never abandoned him. Even now the recordings he left behind are among the most sought after in the whole Classical genre. In fact, Sony is about to reissue them again in their entirety.

I began collecting those recordings myself when I was still in high school, and later bought more of them when they were reissued on CD. Besides the Goldbergs, they now include both volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier -- that's a total of 48 preludes and fugues in every possible key -- as well as the French Suites, the Toccatas, the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, The Art of the Fugue, most (but not all) of Bach's keyboard concertos, and most (but not all) of the Beethoven piano sonatas. There are still more of them out there that I don't own (yet).

When I was in college I had a work-study job with the Audio-Visual department (that's right, I was one of those A-V geeks). One of the most enjoyable parts of my job was to show a documentary film to the music classes about one of Gould's recording sessions.The film showed the Columbia Records sound engineers and Gould, disheveled in a white shirt with the cuffs undone, laboring through take after take.

Part of this session was later dramatized in the 1993 movie called "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," which I highly recommend. In this scene Gould wanders around in a daze, listening to the playback while the engineers in the booth joke about bad coffee. Then one of them, seeming to be drawn into the music, becomes distracted and says, "You know, I think we really have something here. This is really good." Asked for his opinion, Gould says, "Yes, that one has something. Let's hear it again." Always seeking perfection.

Critics were not always universal in their admiration for Gould's interpretations, especially when he left his area of specialty and ventured into the realm of Mozart and Beethoven, or further afield to Schoenberg on the modern end, and Elizabethan music on the other end of the scale. As big a fan as I am, I confess to feeling some disappointment over his tentative first movement to the "Moonlight" Sonata, played entirely without use of the sustain pedal dictated by Beethoven, and the ponderously slow pace of his "Appassionata." Even in Bach his tempos were often criticized as too fast or too slow, his ornamentation as unauthentic, and even his choice of material as "student pieces" when he dared to record some of Bach's simpler fare. One friend of mine grew impatient in the middle of listening and said, "Stop practicing, Glenn, and just PLAY the damn thing!"

But though he may have exasperated us at times, there were always rich rewards and surprises in store that kept listeners on the edge of their seats. I'm thinking of one of the Two-Part Inventions that he played at what must be a world-record pace, like an Olympic sprinter in the 100 yard dash (47 seconds flat). The first impression is, "Ohmygod, it's too fast!" Then as your listening speeds up to try to follow it, like a slow-motion camera capturing the wings of a hummingbird, it unfolds as a marvel of delicacy, a perfect lace of notes each delivered with expression and care. As he nails the landing like a gymnast you have to stand in awe at his incredible agility. It may not be the perfect tempo for this piece, or even the proper one, but Gould seems to be showing us a new way of hearing it, and that has to be a good thing.

So what was it that brought him back to mind this week? Well, I finally thought of looking online for videos of Gould in performance. It turns out there is a wealth of them (check these out), so you can see and hear for yourself why he remains such a unique performer even many years after his death, too young, in 1982.

Which brings us back to the Goldberg Variations. There are 32 of them (hence the name of the film) if you count the simple "Aria" that appears at the beginning and again at the end. Originally part of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, it is in fact the kind of "student piece" that Gould caught some heat for, but in this case Bach used it as a foundation on which to build one of the most monumental edifices in all of keyboard literature. Each variation is unique and imposes its own demands on the performer. All they share in common is the "ground" or bass-line chord progression that lends cohesion to the work as a whole.

At the end, Bach calls for a reprise of the Aria in its original simplicity, as if a reminder of where it all began. (In this it resembles the Magnificat, with its final chorus of "As it was in the beginning...") Interestingly enough, Glenn Gould's career followed the same pattern, for he issued an unprecedented second recording of the Goldbergs at what turned out to be the end of his life. Imagine trying to improve on one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time -- one that is still in print over 50 years later! It was said that he wanted to take advantage of developments in digital recording technology to improve on his first effort -- which in fact was not even in stereo. But I think there was another reason.

One difference between the two versions is that the first one is all in separate tracks. Most likely they were recorded that way, individually, allowing both performer and technicians to make each as perfect as possible. It was also necessary to have at least one division to split the recording onto sides A and B of an LP record. But the later version is all one single track, fitting comfortably in about 46 minutes of a 70 or 80 minute CD.

It never dawned on me before that Gould may have actually recorded it that way, in a single piece, until I found this video of him performing it. As you'll see if you watch it, he proceeds smoothly from one variation to the next, clearly without cuts and splices, just as he would in a live performance. There is never a breather, a pause to collect his thoughts, or an adjustment of the chair. He even waves beats in the air between variations, like a conductor, so that the next one begins exactly when he wants it to. Clearly he sees the work as an integrated whole in which even the silences are meaningful. It's an astounding revelation of his thorough mastery of this piece, and would seem to be a final answer to anyone who ever criticized his abandonment of public concerts.

And oh, yeah -- the second one actually might be an even better performance than his youthful one in 1955. Not a bad way to finish up.

For more info:

The Glenn Gould Foundation

GlennGould.org - list of links

GlennGould.com - commercial site run by Sony


  1. Anonymous3:38 PM

    Boy, are you a beautiful writer!

    Your blog deserves an audience as wide as the world. Thank you for your thoughts, your clarity and expression.

    Laura C.

  2. it here. And I see you posted again this week! Yay! (Now is there any way you can get them to use "Re-captcha" instead of the plain captcha to validate posts? I would think Google would promote that on blog sites, since it is to help "read" the old books in the public domain.)