Interpreting Glenn Gould


THE GREAT CANADIAN pianist Glenn Gould, who died last fall at the age of fifty, had an avidly theoretical mind. Like many such people, he was strongly attracted to puns, coincidences, quirky bits of fact. Thus it would perhaps have amused him that the last of his recordings issued during his life—just before his death—was of the same work that he had chosen to inaugurate his recording career, twenty-seven years earlier: Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations.

No one who was listening seriously to music in the mid-1950s can forget the impact of that record. Gould, barely twenty-two years old, had made his triumphant New York debut at Town Hall in January of 1955, and had immediately been signed by Columbia Records. He recorded the Goldberg Variations the following June, the record was issued early in 1956, and within four years it had sold more than 40,000 copies. Still available, in a rechanneled-for-stereo version (CBS MS-7096E), it sounds today as fresh, as perfectly controlled yet perfectly effortless, as it did when newly minted. The playing, free of the eccentricities that were increasingly to mar Gould’s work, combines passionate absorption, intellectual rigor, clarity of line, and tonal beauty. Through all the myriad subtle shifts of tempo, texture, and mood, the overall sense of unity is never lost for a moment, and when, after the last of the thirty variations, we end where we began, with the highly wrought but touching Aria that opened the work, the listener is overwhelmed by a sense of mastery and completion, the perfect closing of a great circle.

The circle of Glenn Gould‘s puzzling (and perhaps even tragic) career is, alas, far less satisfyingly closed by his new Goldberg Variations (CBS IM-37779). The first thing one notices is the extraordinarily slow tempo at which he now plays the Aria. Dreamy and yet ponderously insistent, with every point doggedly spelled out, it stands alone, a piece in its own right, and fails to create the sense of anticipation, of richer things to come, necessary to the theme of a variation set. Variation No. 1 also stands alone: instead of being fleet, clear, and buoyant, as in 1955, it is emphatically (and unattractively) hammered out. And similarly with many of the variations that follow: No. 4 is overly rhetorical. No. 7 lacks the touching simplicity it had in 1955, No. 9 is pedantic and fussy, No. 12 is also rhetorical, No. 13 is arch, No. 14 is overemphatic, No. 15 is slow and creepy, with none of the somber nobility it had in 1955. There are many dazzling things along the way, and the second half of the performance is distinctly less mannered. At no time can we doubt that we are in the presence of a master pianist and musician. But the mastery and control operate only locally, to create momentarily striking effects, not generally, to create, as in 1955, a compelling sense of overarching purpose and unity.

The eccentricities that I mentioned earlier set in immediately, with Gould’s second recording, in 1956, of the last three Beethoven sonatas. Whole movements, the extremely fast slow movement of Op. 109, for example, are spoiled by what was perhaps Gould’s eagerness to show his independence from the classic recorded performances of Artur Schnabel, the pianist and musical thinker he admired above all others. Yet the ebullient Beethoven First Concerto of 1958 (Odyssey Y-30491) is one of Gould’s greatest recordings, and the Third and Fourth Concertos, recorded in 1959 and 1961, respectively, are also very fine, despite Gould’s growing tendency to arpeggiate left-hand chords and to give undue prominence to innocent left-hand accompanying figures, elevating them to the full status of inner voices. (All five Beethoven concertos are available in Odyssey set Y4-34640.) The many Beethoven sonatas that Gould subsequently recorded are similarly marred, though always interesting and well worth hearing, and as late as 1974 he could produce a superb performance, very different from Schnabel’s, of the Op. 126 Bagatelles (CBS M33265).

Gould’s annoying habit of activating his left hand, in spite of the sense of the music and even of the notes written by the composer, seems to have resulted from a growing conviction that the greatest music is contrapuntal music, and that if one does not find the counterpoint in music one believes to be great, one must supply it. Thus he felt less and less at home with classical (as opposed to Baroque) music, and especially with Mozart. This dissatisfaction was evident (though hardly disturbing) in his great 1961 recording of the Concerto in C minor, K. 491, but not yet in the fine 1958 Sonata in C major, K. 330. Both records are unfortunately out of print. Gould never recorded another Mozart concerto, and in his later recordings of all the Mozart sonatas (1967-1974), including a vastly inferior remake of K. 330, he simply gave up and played much of the music at breakneck speed, depriving it of all sense but at least keeping both hands constantly in motion. Haydn fared somewhat better. Gould’s 1980-1981 performances of the last six sonatas (CBS 12M36947), issued last summer, do make sense, but they are often pompous and overly rhetorical, like much of the recent Goldberg Variations, lacking the tonal and rhythmic flexibility, the structural cohesiveness, and the playfulness and wit of his fine 1958 version of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat (Hoboken XVI:49), originally issued on the same record as K. 330.

It was, understandably, Bach with whom Gould’s love of contrapuntal intricacy led him to be increasingly preoccupied. His early versions of the Italian Concerto (CBS MS-6141), the Concerto No. 1 in D minor (out of print), and the six partitas (CBS M2S-693) are all superb, as are, despite their unevenness, many of the Bach recordings that followed: the complete The Well-Tempered Clavier, the other keyboard concertos, the French and English Suites, and assorted smaller pieces. Gould also found congenial the music of the Renaissance composers Byrd and Gibbons (CBS M30825), as well as that of an odd assortment of twentieth-century composers: Schoenberg, Berg, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Krenek, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. The most important of his recordings of twentieth-century music—Schoenberg’s solo piano pieces, songs (which Gould accompanies brilliantly), Piano Concerto, and Fantasy for Violin and Piano; Berg’s Sonata— are now out of print and should certainly be reissued.

GOULD SELDOM ATTEMPTED Romantic music, and often spoke scornfully of the entire nineteenth-century piano repertoire (including even Beethoven), which was associated in his mind with what he saw as the corrupting influence of the concertizing life: the powerful temptations to show off one’s technique, to revel in piano sonority at the expense of musical substance, to give up experimenting and rely on a small, safe repertoire of familiar crowd-pleasers. As an adult, he never performed Chopin in concert or on records (though he did once play the Sonata No. 3 on a Canadian broadcast); and of Liszt he recorded only a couple of bravura transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies. But in 1960 he recorded ten Brahms intermezzi (CBS MS-6237). The performances are not, as one might expect, spare and streamlined, but very expansive, free, and improvisatorial, expressive without being at all sentimental. Even more interesting is his 1968 recording, with members of the Juilliard Quartet, of Schumann’s Quartet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 47 (in CBS set D3S-806). We are accustomed to hearing strong, rather thick piano playing in Romantic chamber works for piano and strings, and so, at first, Gould’s light, clear, at times almost recessive performance sounds odd. But as one listens and relistens, one realizes how perfectly he has shaped it to the demands of Schumann’s ensemble writing. For once, the piano is heard as an equal voice rather than as the dominant one.

It was, in fact, a performance of a classic of the Romantic repertoire that provided the great scandal of Gould’s concert career and may possibly have triggered his long-promised decision to bring it to an end. On the afternoon of April 6, 1962, he was to play the Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the New York Philharmonic. Just before the performance, Leonard Bernstein, who was to conduct, felt impelled to give a little curtain speech dissociating himself from what was to follow, calling attention to the unusually slow tempi Gould had imposed upon him but saying that he had decided to go ahead with the performance because he considered Gould #&820;a thinking performer” and his interpretation worthy of a hearing. The critics, many of whom had been offended by Gould‘s refusal to play the standard repertoire and by his eccentric platform mannerisms, were ready: at last he had given them the performance they had been waiting for. Leading the pack was The New York Times’s Harold Schonberg, who cast his review in the form of a monologue, in mock Lower East Side dialect, addressed to a mythical friend named Ossip. Schonberg concluded: “You know what, Ossip? The Gould boy played the Brahms D Minor Concerto slower than we used to practice it. (And between you, me and the corner lamp– post, Ossip, maybe the reason he plays it so slow is maybe his technique isn’t so good.)” Gould’s last concert performance was two years later, on March 28, 1964, and the music critic and pianist Samuel Lipman has perceptively suggested that “his decision to stop playing at the end of the 1963-64 season must have been made, given the customary lead time in booking and contract-signing, about the spring of 1962, the same time as the Brahms incident.”

Whatever the facts of the case, the irony is that this much-abused performance was and is a great one. I heard the broadcast at the time, but remembered only the opening of the first movement, which struck me as very powerful but quite un-Brahmsian, rather eerie in a way that for some reason suggested Mahler. But I recently acquired a tape of the broadcast, and was astonished to find that once one gets used to the unorthodox tempi, the performance is not eccentric but thoroughly convincing—in fact, one of the finest concerto performances of my experience. The first movement, which is, after all, marked maestoso (though most pianists play it allegro), is austere and very grand yet surging with life and energy; the second movement is expansive and poignant; the third, dour and grimly tragic. Though the orchestra at first has trouble staying together and cannot supply the long, powerful lines needed to support Gould, it gradually catches on, and the performance becomes cohesive, the piano not playing a starring role but functioning as an integral part of the ensemble, just as in the Schumann Quartet. I find Gould’s approach thoroughly in keeping with the spirit of this deliberately unvirtuosic (though very difficult) work, which often sounds pompous and blustery when played faster but which emerges at Gould’s slower tempi as the work of “unprecedented tragic power” that D. F. Tovey claimed it to be, one of Brahms’s greatest utterances. The tape may be obtained for $24 from Good Sound Associates, P.O. Box 263, Planetarium Station, New York, N. Y. 10024. If CBS wants to pay tribute to Gould’s memory, it could not do better than to issue the performance, orchestral blemishes and all, on a record.

AFTER LEAVING CONCERT life, Gould withdrew to Toronto and became something of a recluse, emerging occasionally to make a record, write an article, or direct a radio or television documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Several of these documentaries dealt with the isolated lives led by the inhabitants of northern Canada, with whom Gould strongly identified. For he saw such a life of isolation as the only alternative open to him if he was to escape what seemed to him the demeaning conformity necessarily imposed by a concert career. In a 1974 telecast, he said: “Solitude is the pre-requisite for ecstatic experience, especially the experience most valued by the post-Wagnerian artist—the condition of heroism. One can’t feel oneself heroic without having first been cast off by the world, or perhaps by having done the casting-off oneself.”

Of course, Gould, as an internationally acclaimed artist, could have remained in concert life without compromising himself, playing only when and where and what he wanted—just as Schnabel, in so many ways his mentor, had done before him. But Gould, unlike Schnabel yet like so many other musical prodigies, never grew up emotionally. Instead, he remained a rebellious adolescent, his view of the world shaped and controlled by the melodramatic absolutism so obvious in the statement just quoted and in the elaborate theories he constructed to explain his withdrawal from the concert stage.

These theories, embarrassing in their naïveté but touching, because of the powerful moral impetus behind them and because of the single-minded yet good-humored conviction with which Gould held them, have been amply expounded by Geoffrey Payzant in his interesting book Glenn Gould: Music & Mind. Very briefly, Gould, who since childhood had been acutely sensitive to human and animal suffering, saw modern life as dominated by vicious and intolerable competitiveness. The public concert seemed to him to embody this competitiveness in an especially virulent form, concert audiences being mainly motivated not by a love of music but by “blood-lust,” the fervent desire to see the famous virtuoso make a fool of himself. Under the influence of the Canadian essayist Jean Le Moyne, Gould came to see technology as the great healing force of the future. As the technology of recording steadily improved, the public concert would cease to exist, and new types of listener and performer, no longer alienated from each other but united as they had been in the golden age of the Renaissance, would arise. The new listener, able to control the way in which he heard music by adjusting the dials of his equipment, would become a participant in the creative process; the new performer, freed from the temptations and the hazards of public performance, would be able to communicate the structure of the music directly and flawlessly to the listener through recordings carefully assembled by splicing together the best portions of many separate “takes.” Its destructive potential overcome, music would thus become a force for human betterment.

There is no need to belabor criticisms. The theories, for all their obvious sincerity, were merely a superstructure, and tell us little about what was really going on in Gould’s mind. The reality is that he developed an obsession with the disembodied structure of music that carried him further and further into his private world, out of touch with normal ways of hearing and interpreting musical sound.

In a 1968 recorded interview, “Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout,” originally issued by Columbia as a bonus disc but now out of print, he cites his own fine 1957 recording of Bach’s Partita No. 5 in order to illustrate the damaging effects of concertizing on his playing. This recording, made just after a tour of Europe and Russia during which he had played the work on almost every program, he now feels to be “the worst Bach recording that I’ve ever made,” as well as “the most pianistic.” “It’s full of all sorts of dynamic hang-ups,” he tells us, his voice crackling with intelligence; “it’s full of crescendi and diminuendi that have no part in the structure and the skeleton of that music, and defy one to portray the skeleton adequately.” These “accrued bad habits,” these “bits of business,” as he harshly calls them, which were introduced in order to project the music to large audiences in large halls, “ultimately destroyed the fabric of the music.” He then plays the opening of the Allemande as he remembers having played it on the record, adding that he may perhaps be “exaggerating just a bit” in order to present a horrible example of musical structure obscured through virtuoso mannerisms. To the listener‘s amazement, the performance, though beautifully full, round, and expressive, is utterly unmannered. Indeed, despite Gould’s fear of “exaggerating just a bit,” it is more rather than less straightforward than his actual recorded performance—which, however, did not obscure the structure of the music either. Gould then comments: “If I’d not managed to mess up my interpretation of that piece by giving so many public performances of it, I might have played it with some regard for the structure of the music, maybe something like this.” Again the performance is very beautiful, and only minimally different from the first one: at exactly the same tempo, it is somewhat lighter and more transparent, delivered with a more staccato touch.

One is not surprised that Gould sees the small distinction between the two performances as a large one: we expect artists to be far more sensitive to these matters than we are. What is surprising and revealing is the violence and absoluteness of his language—in one performance the structure is “destroyed,” in the other it is (he implies) clearly articulated—and his strange belief that the job of the performer is to “portray the skeleton” of the music. For what the composer provides and what the performer portrays is not merely a skeleton but a living form. Of course, the performer must, at some level, grasp the structure of the music he plays. But to lay bare that structure, to portray it by itself alone, as a diagram in an anatomy text portrays the human skeletal structure, is the job not of the performer but of the musical analyst.

Gould came increasingly to see structure and sonority, the skeleton of a piece of music and the sound in which the performer embodies it, as directly opposed to each other rather than as complementary aspects of the same artistic whole. He often found it pleasant to practice with a vacuum cleaner going nearby, making it impossible for him to hear the sounds he was producing at the piano and allowing him to concentrate on the disembodied vision in his mind. Increasingly, he confused any attention paid to tonal beauty with the kind of attention paid to it by a meretricious virtuoso— some might choose Horowitz as a convenient example—who uses his dazzling control of the sounds he can produce from his instrument as an end in itself, distracting attention from the structure and substance of the music he plays. What Gould wanted, finally, was to pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone. But of course an instrumentalist cannot do this. He must make some sort of sound, and if he deliberately pays as little attention to beauty of sound as Gould came to do, the result will be not perfectly neutral, transparent sound but sound that is ugly and inappropriate, the sort of sound we hear in his recent Haydn sonatas and Goldberg Variations.

On these records, Gould seems to be fighting against the sound of the piano, insistently pounding out what he conceives to be the structure of the music as though he had to make it heard over, rather than through, his instrument. The cruel paradox is that his obsession with structure destroys the listener’s sense of structure: the movements of the Haydn sonatas break into separate episodes, the Goldberg Variations becomes a chain of minimally interrelated effects. Though it was the percussiveness of the piano that originally bothered Gould, the playing is unattractively and distractingly percussive. Finally, Gould, who fled the concert stage because he thought it was forcing him into mannered playing, wound up with a set of very annoying, and very stagey, mannerisms.

Would things have turned out differently had he remained a part of the musical life around him? One is tempted to say they would. The Brahms concerto, in which his sound is very rich and fully pedaled, beautiful in a thoroughly traditional way that suits the untraditional grandeur of his conception perfectly, does seem a watershed. It was in the same year, 1962, that he recorded his first installment of The Well-Tempered Clavier (CBS D3S-733), in which, despite its many excellences, we can clearly hear, for perhaps the first time, the overcalculation, the unnaturalness, the highly mannered rhetoric, that were to spoil his last recordings and that are so much more troubling than his early, comparatively innocent eccentricities.

Yet Gould was never very much a part of that musical life but always a loner, and the move from his early eccentricities to his later downright perversities seems so clear and direct that one is also tempted to say that what happened was inevitable. Of course we can never know, and perhaps it is foolish even to speculate. But it is this haunting sense of a deterioration not only inevitable but also brought about by the same intensity that made his early recordings unforgettable that makes it seem not improper to call Glenn Gould’s career a tragedy.