Commentary Magazine


Old Gould

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) would have celebrated his 75th birthday on September 25, had he not died of an untimely stroke on October 4, 25 years ago. These two anniversaries have sufficed for a great deal of worldwide hoopla, from the naming in his honor of a plaza in his native Toronto, to a commemorative envelope issued by the Canadian post office. Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization is offering a major exhibit, “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius,” which runs through August 10, 2008. Sony/BMG, Gould’s longtime record company, is reissuing an 80-CD “complete original jacket” box set as an import. This offers a good occasion for an evaluation of Gould’s contribution, not a “re-performance” of “The Goldberg Variations”—which, in any event, already has been attempted, as I described in a previous post for contentions.

Setting aside the endless stories of his personal eccentricity and hypochondria, Gould’s musicianship could be brilliant when bizarreness did not intrude, making him the Bobby Fischer of classical music (before Fischer’s latest, definitive dip into darkness). Although Gould is unmistakably linked with Bach, whom he played with a jittery, edgy verve, he claimed to prefer the music of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), and indeed, his CD of Gibbons and other English masters like William Byrd has an entrancing dignity and poise absent from many of his other recordings. Gould’s very lack of empyrean calm may have helped in the modern romantic repertoire, and he was an invigoratingly dramatic performer of Prokofiev and Scriabin, as well as of Richard Strauss. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, long dismissed as arid, were rediscovered with unsurpassed dazzle by Gould. In neo-classical works by Paul Hindemith, which can seem all too Apollonian in other hands, Gould’s storm and stress add contemporary, improvisational skittishness, also ideal for chamber works by Francis Poulenc and Dmitry Shostakovich.

Some readers may be allergic to the Second Vienna School, but Gould was one of the rare pianists (like Italy’s Maurizio Pollini, who played Arnold Schoenberg’s works with genuine love. A 1960’s meeting with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the Schoenberg “Phantasy,” has a feeling of affection (tied to Gould’s admiration for Menuhin) unmatched in the discography. A gentler version of Schoenberg’s modernist investigations came from the Norwegian composer Fartein Valen (1887– 1952). Gould found spooky poetry in Valen’s work, too.

All of these achievements are essential elements of Gould’s artistry, and those who love—or dismiss—Gould based on his Bach recordings alone are missing the forest for the trees. Some who admire Gould’s Bach have missed his obsessively intense recording of Johann Sebastian’s “Art of Fugue” on the organ. Yes, Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” from 1955 and 1981 are both remarkable, but they are not the summa of all things Gouldian. Yes, there are bad recordings by Gould, like his Mozart sonatas (music he despised) or his famously ungainly 1962 Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Leonard Bernstein. Yet the best of Gould is splendid indeed.

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