Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A cold day in Toronto with Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould was the first pianist I heard play Bach. I liked what I heard. This was back in the LP era and you could buy the complete Well Tempered Clavier in what was at the time (the 70s) a six album boxed set. My choice of Gould's WTC was based more on economics than artistry. The boxed set was one of those great six for the price of three deals that high school students like me loved -- not that many of my classmates were rushing out to buy Bach.

To be honest, the record shop also had Ralph Kirkpatrick's WTC (played on a clavichord) and that was the one I really wanted, but it was six expensive LPs. Gould was kind to my wallet and buying it meant I would only have to skip lunch once that week (my lunch money was my record buying money). Nearly forty years later the Gould recording of the WTC is still my favorite. 

As time moved on I branched out and picked up his life-affirming recording of the Goldberg Variations (the 1955 recording), his zesty Two and Three Part Inventions album, Toccatas and so on. Of course with the dawn of the CD era I went out and replaced the LPs with CDS. His Bach recordings are still models of clarity and precision.

Besides his artistic brilliance, there was something about Gould that I found compelling. He was, to put it mildly, an eccentric character and there's something undeniably appealing about that. A performer that turns away from the concert stage at the pinnacle of his career to devote himself to recording is fascinating. Gould's views on the power of electronic media were prescient and I can only wonder what he would have made of our current day. The thought of a Glenn Gould blog and videos boggles the mind. I would give a kidney to have had an opportunity to chat with him about this -- the best I could manage was sharing a bench with his statue on a frigid Toronto afternoon.

The writer's fantasy chat with Glenn Gould

Thankfully we have recordings. One of the most interesting new ones is an amazing 10 DVD set called Glenn Gould on Television, the Complete CBC Broadcasts 1954 - 1977. Here's the man playing and talking. He was a superb communicator and to hear him speak about composers (he was one himself) and the essence of music makes for 19 hours of riveting viewing. Gould could gab.

Leonard Bernstein was also a great communicator and his famous Norton lectures were virtuoso shows given by a charismatic and handsome man. He'd be the fellow who would dominate your cocktail party with witty insights, but Gould was the guy you would hang out with at the coffee bar and talk with into the late hours of the night. He would have you thinking about things long after that night was over. Give me the frumpy, hyper-intelligent, slightly weird guys any day.

Gould's Bach is seminal, but I thought it would be interesting to consider some of the great non-Bach recordings he made. Here's a couple of favorites:
Consort of Musicke by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons

Gould's recordings of music by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons makes every twisting contrapuntal line crystal clear. Early music aficionados may turn up their noses, but this is inspired playing.

Strauss Ophelia Lieder; Enoch Arden; Piano Sonata

That's right, Gould plays Richard Strauss. Gould accompanying Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and actor Claude Rains? Yup. Apparently the great diva and Gould didn't see eye-to-eye on interpretive matters, but the performance of the youthful sonata is superb. 

Wagner Siegfried Idyll; Meistersinger and Götterdämmerung transcriptions

 A fascinating and bittersweet album. Gould's transcriptions are marvelous and he leads a lovely and lyrical Siegfried Idyll. From what I've read he was interested in doing more conducting, but passed away at the far too young age of 50.

Glenn Gould is buried at the foot of his parents' grave in a cemetery on the outskirts of Toronto. When I visited in December there were some withered orchards and lilies left on the grave. It was a cold, gray day and I didn't have any flowers to leave. After some thought I decided to leave a token of my visit, my business card. If he were still alive we would have one hell of a chat.

--Craig Zeichner
Editor, Ariama


  1. Gould/A Fan's Notes (remastered)

    If it seems rude to compare how your brain
    managed to send signals to your fingers
    so fast that you hardly knew what to make of it,
    to thinking that signal was as particular
    as the pitch of a sound that only dogs could hear—
    please forgive.
    Bach spoke through you; arms crossed
    at the clavicembalo, he winked,
    I never imagined them played like that, but
    he found the songs I hid in there,
    so why not hum along?
    Your neighbors were too polite
    to stand outside on St. Clair to listen,
    and anyway, this is Canada.
    But your worlds were not cold places;
    they were landscapes where a musical physicist could dwell.
    After skating over icy keys in frigid concert halls,
    you left them for good to begin
    lifelong construction of a state of wonder.
    Here’s some news: the English Suites
    you recorded in Toronto in ‘71 and ’74
    were remastered in a way I think you’d like.
    It’s a trick done every year
    so we can pretend you’re still around.
    I think you’d be happy with
    your photo on the cover, too.
    I just wanted you to know
    that everyone is still talking about you,
    and arguing whether the ‘55 version
    of the Goldberg Variations
    is better than the ‘81.

    -- Andrea Grenadier

    1. Andrea,

      Thanks so much for sharing this. Very moving tribute to a great and fascinating man.

      Best regards,