This collection surveys in depth Gould’s recordings from 1955 to 1961, beginning with an account of the Goldberg Variations that remains one of the most celebrated (and best-selling) recordings of the 20th century.
Newsweek wrote of the Goldberg Variations: “His Bach is sensitive and superb.” Saturday Review said “Gould has not only all the finger discipline that can be taught, but also with a kind of darting finesse that cannot ….. He has made a mark for himself with this clean-lined, soberly expressive effort that will take considerable doing to succeed.”
Gramophone magazine’s review in January 1958 was telling: “Gould is superior [to Landowska and Demus] in every way. Some of his tempi may be fast, but his is a speed connected with urgency more than with show or brilliance. He carries a phrase through a gigantic upward or forward sweep, effortless, controlled and clear as crystal ….. Gould has some of the clearest counterpoint I have heard for a long time ….. This is the kind of performance I shall treasure, for it has the kind of architecture in tone which is often longed for but rarely found.” Edward Rothstein, retrospectively reviewing the recording in 1982 in the New York Times, described it as “rambunctious, exuberant, relishing its power and freedom.”
Over the years, Gould was to record more Bach than any other composer. Each new recording would attract controversy, dividing opinion but, more importantly, opening people’s ears. This was a period which saw the beginning of a parallel growth in historically-informed performance, led by such great artists as harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt who in turn began to influence the way in which some pianists played Bach. Wanda Landowska had led the way, even though her mighty harpsichord was a Wurlitzer compared with any instrument Bach could have known. Her often-quoted quip “You play Bach your way. I’ll play it his way” was disingenuous. Playing Bach in the 20th century on a harpsichord or a grand piano (be it a Steinway, or a Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Chickering or Yamaha for that matter) could only be ‘unhistorical’ but it could nevertheless be truthful. It was of little concern to Glenn Gould that Bach was a 17th-18th century composer. For this 20th-century performer he was a 20th-century composer, and Gould’s artistry would treat him as such.
There were few pianists performing the Bach keyboard concertos, but they became a core part of Gould’s repertoire: he toured with it, including a performance with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. (Gould must have been disconcerted that Karajan kept his eyes closed throughout the performance: eye-contact is usually a vital element in communication between conductor and soloist). Predictably, he divided opinion. When he performed the D minor concerto with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, Paul Henry Lang of the Herald-Tribune wrote: “I found the performance nothing less than shocking. His tone was harsh, at times downright brutal. The whole thing was a caricature of a baroque concerto.” Winthrop Sargent of The New Yorker went to the same concert. He wrote that it was “a masterpiece of coherence, control and fine musical taste.” As they say, ‘you pay your money and you take your pick’”. Gould’s recordings provide the facts: they are an indispensable part of his legacy.
For his New York concerto debut in January 1957, Glenn Gould started at the top, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The obvious choice would have been one of the seat-filling popular Romantic piano concertos, but with Gould that was unlikely (and unnecessary anyway). They agreed on the ‘Cinderella’ of Beethoven’s piano concertos, the second (actually the first he completed). Gould had an ambivalent approach to Beethoven. As one of Gould’s CBS producers, Paul Myers, told the present writer [conversation, January 2013], Gould once said to him: “If you want to hear Beethoven, listen to Schnabel”. Gould’s biographer, Otto Friedrich, described the pianist’s admitted ambivalent feelings about Beethoven. ‘There was something about the theatrical, self-important side of Beethoven that irritated him … Of the mighty Hammerklavier Sonata, he wrote that “it is the longest, most inconsiderate, and probably least rewarding piece that Beethoven wrote for the piano”. The Second Piano Concerto appealed to Gould, however; it retains some of the Haydnesque qualities of early Beethoven. Bernstein was already an admirer of Glenn Gould and had known Gould’s Goldberg Variations since its release. After the performance of the Beethoven, Bernstein exclaimed: “He is the greatest thing to have happened to music in years…”
Glenn’s behaviour at the recording sessions was unusual, to say the least. While the orchestra was recording the opening tutti, Gould walked about the studio waving his arms as if conducting. Bernstein – perhaps because he, too, was a genius and understood – was unfazed. Gould insisted on endless retakes even when Bernstein and the recording producer were satisfied. After the recording was completed, Bernstein wrote to Gould: “I am as proud as you are … and I hope the critics get the point & perceive for once in their lives what is really going on.” [Quoted from the Otto Friedrich biography.] For once that most grudging of critics, Harold C. Schonberg, wrote: “The results are beautiful … Mr. Gould can play with considerable dash, and he does when necessary; but the overall impression is one of well-managed plasticity, of piano merging with orchestra and veering out again, of fine ensemble and musical finesse.”
Gould was equally happy with his recording of Beethoven’s First Concerto, conducted by Vladimir Golschmann, the vastly-experienced Paris-born conductor who was Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1931-1958. Gould wrote to Golschmann after receiving a copy of the finished recording: “I have been exulting for two days now in our Beethoven No.1, which was sent me. I hope you have heard it and are as proud of it as I. There is a real joie de vivre about it from beginning to end.” One particularly striking aspect of the recording is the first-movement cadenza, which Gould had composed in 1954. He himself described it as a “vastly inappropriate cadenza … in the general harmonic idiom of Max Reger.” Highly contrapuntal, it is, after his String Quartet, Gould’s only published composition apart from his amusing So You Want To Write A Fugue?.
In the 1950s, Haydn’s recorded catalogue was far smaller than it was to become from the ‘60s onwards; he was often regarded as a lesser version of Mozart. Once again, Gould knew better, and was ahead of the field in recording the last six sonatas. As evidenced by the E flat Sonata included here, Gould’s beautiful playing reveals his empathy with this music and honours Haydn. It was a wake-up call for other musicians and listeners alike.
Gould’s relationship with Mozart’s music is much more problematical. His interpretation of the C major Sonata suggests that he cordially disliked the piece. He dispatches it with what Otto Friedrich describes as “empty glitter”. There is, indeed, something perverse about Gould’s Mozart. He has been quoted as saying of his Mozart recordings: “I had more fun with those things than anything I’ve ever done, mainly because I really don’t like Mozart as a composer.” By way of further explanation, Gould said that he liked early Mozart because it emulated Haydn and C.P.E. Bach and disliked the later piano music because it was too operatic. Gould had a point in so far as some of Mozart’s concertos have an ‘operatic’ quality in the characterisation and treatment of their themes and the singing quality of many slow movements: this is partly why they are so miraculous. Gould’s Mozart interpretations seem to be a deliberate, even aggressive, attempt to evade any such suggestion in the music and to force listeners to listen with fresh ears. It was at Gould’s own insistence that he recorded Mozart, knowing that CBS would let him record whatever he wanted. Whatever listeners’ reactions, Gould is being totally honest and deserves to be taken seriously.
Gould had little truck with the great Romantic composers, which makes his recordings of the Brahms Intermezzi so important. These late works are some of the finest products of Brahms’s output, a synthesis of Classical tradition and Romantic sentiment. Gould’s recordings are among the most satisfying he ever made. He felt so, too. “I have received the test pressing of my latest recording … and I think that it is perhaps the best piano playing I have done. I think you will be quite surprised not only with the repertoire but also with the style of playing which is, if I may say so, rather aristocratic. You know what an incurable romantic I am anyway.” He also described is as “the sexiest interpretation of Brahms intermezzi you have ever heard.” He added: “I have captured, I think, an atmosphere of improvisation which I don’t believe has ever been represented in Brahms recordings before, There is a quality as though – this isn’t an original comment but something one of my friends said – as though I was really playing for myself, but left the door open … I love it. This is one of the things I am most proud of.”
So, where does this leave us?
In the intervening years, a whole forest has been felled to provide the newsprint consumed in publishing articles and reviews about Glenn Gould. Gossip columns about his private life (invariably way off-beam because his private life was private!), critical analyses of his performances, reviews comparing his interpretations to those of other pianists. All inevitable, but Glenn Gould was blithely unconcerned by the fact that he presented a tangle of paradoxes; a performing artist whose personal insights yielded not interpretations but recreations. There is no right or wrong response to a Glenn Gould recording. Listening to these recordings should be a one-to-one experience between performer and listener, and, subjectively, no two listeners will hear the same thing. For the general music-lover and experienced collector alike, it makes for a remarkable encounter.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe