Sunday, July 22, 2012

Still Giving After All These Years

What can you say about a performer who continues to give fresh insights even 30 years after his death? That's what Glenn Gould did to me recently, even though he passed away in 1982, and even though I've been listening to him since I was a high school student in the 1960s.

One of his most enigmatic recordings was Bach's Art of the Fugue, the treatise on that form that Bach himself did not live to complete. Gould left us with a recording of it which was maddening on two counts. First, the record did not even contain all of the fugues that Bach had written as part of this opus, including the last one that abruptly ends right where he happened to leave off composing. I suppose there was going to be a volume II someday with the rest of them, but it never happened. So this was an incompleteness of an incompletion, doubly frustrating to those of us who admire Bach's work and who doted on Gould's every performance of it.

But second, what Gould recorded was not even on the piano. Instead he chose to make this his only performance on the organ. Not that there was anything wrong with that in itself -- Bach, of course, was a renowned organist in his day. And in fact, he wrote this work on four separate staffs rather than the usual two for the keyboard, leaving it up to future performers to attempt it any way they liked. Since then it has been performed by string quartets, brass ensembles, and various other instruments besides the harpsichord or piano or organ.

But the piano (no pun intended) was Gould's forte. His phenomenal touch on the keys gave him an unsurpassed ability to accentuate the various lines of polyphony, to literally give each line its own unique voice, from a thumping bass pizzacato to a vibrant mid-tone to a bell-like clarity in the high notes. For him to limit himself to the elements of phrasing available on the organ was like painting with a limited palette. Though the performance was excellent as usual, and though he characteristically selected a small church organ whose voice and acoustics would not muddy the sound, still it left many -- including me -- wishing he had just bowed to expectations and done it on the piano.

So the years passed. Gould left us, entirely too soon, like Bach before him never returning to complete this piece of unfinished business. The recordings he left behind continue to sell voluminously to the present day. His reach is ubiquitous. One occasionally comes across an item like an interview with rock poet Patti Smith where she describes herself, "listening to Glenn Gould." Or hot Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who lights up at the mention of the name and says, "I love Glenn Gould! I think he is great genius!" At least half a dozen biographical films have been made about his life, and one of these led me to a wonderful discovery.

The film in question is Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey, a documentary in which various Russian musicians including pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviadoslav Richter are interviewed about Gould's visit to their country in the midst of the Cold War. It's hard to overstate the impression the young Canadian made there. No one had ever heard of him, and his first concert in Leningrad was only half full. But at the intermission everyone went out to the lobby to call their friends. The interval was lengthened to an hour and a half to allow time for people to get to the concert hall. One man who received such a call reported that his friend said simply, "Stop what you're doing, get dressed and get down here, you have to hear this."

So the second half was a sellout, and the subsequent concert in Moscow was standing room only, with barely enough room for those standing. One man said that he went to hear Webern, a modern composer on the program who was rarely performed in the Soviet Union because all that atonal music was considered elitist and decadent. What he remembered instead was Bach, sounding as new and modern and fresh as anything from the 20th century. Richter, himself a giant as a piano virtuoso, said: "I could play as good as Glenn Gould. Do you know why I do not? Because I would have to work so hard."

But I digress. After watching the DVD (thank you, Netflix), I thought to look at the "extra features" on the disk. One of them was a performance of one of the fugues from the Art of Fugue -- on the piano! Could there be more of them, I wondered? A quick search online revealed that in the process of re-releasing Gould's entire catalog, Sony had given us some "lost" recordings of him playing the same fugues -- with typical beauty and perfection -- on the instrument he was born to play.

I rushed to get the full set, which includes both the organ and piano versions. Two of them are very poor quality, sounding like they must have been done on a casette recorder during a practice session, but of course we're glad to have even those. Let me be clear -- it is only the recording quality that is lacking; the playing as always is amazing. The rest of them are in studio quality sound, and the subtlety of expression, the nuances of touch, are as impeccable as anything he ever did.

Again, they are not complete, and they are not even all the same ones that he did on the organ, but at least it does include the last one, the one that ends breathlessly at the beginning of a phrase ... You might call it the completion of an incompleteness. It will have to be enough, because it's all we're ever going to get.

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