Glenn Gould's record transcends time


Glenn Gould did not like to be touched.

It was partly that neurasthenic fear of physical contact that led him (at the age of 31) to abandon the stage in 1964. But the great Canadian pianist did not abandon his audience. For Gould's retreat to recording and TV studios allowed him to work tirelessly to perfect a vision of musical performance unaffected by the vagaries of time and space.

Gould -- who died 10 years ago at the age of 50 -- was not only a great artist, he was also a commercially viable one. That is why his record company, Sony Classical, has just initiated a huge two-year project to reissue almost everything Gould committed to the microphone and the camera. The first installment of that package -- 18 CDs and 12 video programs -- is now available. When the project is completed next year -- with almost 15 hours of videos and more than 60 CDs -- Gould will have accomplished something as seemingly contradictory as it is remarkable. This reclusive pianist will have left a more complete account of himself to posterity than any great pianist in history.

Gould's repertory was as interesting for what it left out as for what it contained. Except for Beethoven and Brahms, Gould eschewed almost all of the 19th century. There is no Liszt, Chopin, Schumann or Rachmaninoff -- the traditional rabbits that virtuosos pull out of hats -- but there is plenty of Bach, Hindemith, Schoenberg, some Bizet and Scriabin, obscure British virginalists and even a few little-known Canadians.

"I do not like to play music that favors turbulence over discipline," Gould said. Put another way, Gould did not like to perform music that -- because its athleticism was allied to that of sports and dance -- required the approbation of an audience to complete the experience.

Most performing artists are, I think, wedded to an Aristotelian ideal. Their vision of performance is grounded in the grit of reality -- of performances that imitate a particular action in a single time and place and that lead (for the audience) to emotional catharsis. But Gould was that rare bird -- a performer who was a Platonist. His ideals of beauty were such that they could only be achieved in a realm high above that of material accidents. That's why he retreated to the solitude of the studio, where he spent hours splicing and editing to produce a few minutes of music.

A few critics numbered among his closest friends, but Gould was suspicious of music journalism. By its very nature -- which is that of a consumer report -- journalistic criticism tends to recommend what is trustworthy and -- much too often -- orthodox. From that perspective it is sometimes hard to endorse Gould's recordings (except when they are of the music of Bach, which he played with unprecedented passion and insight). But all these recordings and videos are fascinating -- if sometimes willfully perverse.

Despite what other Gouldians think, I believe that Gould's playing was at its astonishing best during the decade in which he performed before the public. Public performance put Gould in a painful crucible in which he was forced to express his unconventional ideas for listeners with conventional expectations. Anyone who sees the Sony videotape called "The Earliest Decade," which shows Gould in actual concerts, will see a young man in torment. (One only need compare it with those of 10 and 20 years later that show the pianist in the controlled isolation of the studio, wherein the expression on his face is one of uninhibited ecstasy.) But the agony of his public appearances forced Gould to communicate his ideas to other people, while studio conditions allowed him to pursue his own ideas to their often obscure and distorted, if logical, conclusions. That is why, I suspect -- despite his professed hatred of Mozart's music -- that his 1957 recording of Mozart's C Minor Concerto conveys its pathos and heartbreak so gloriously, while his 1970 performances of the same composer's sonatas treat the music with madcap irreverence. That may also explain why the 1965 recording of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto (when he was only one year removed from the stage) is so profoundly expressive, while the 1970 videotape, in which Gould rattles off the piece like a printing press on amphetamines, is so awful. In the world he had createdor himself, Gould was free to show what he had come to believe: that the "Emperor" was a mechanical, soulless piece.

But still one would not have wanted to deprive Gould of the freedom he enjoyed. He continued to provide great performances -- his 1981 version of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" has a monumentality different from, but not inferior to, his joyous TTC 1955 traversal, and while there may be other ways to approach Beethoven's variations and bagatelles, I know of few that are so persuasive.

But most of all, it is some of the videos that make you rejoice in the fulfillment he found in isolation. When you see Gould play the first movement of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony (in the Liszt transcription) in the lonely splendor of Toronto's Massey Hall, and the camera pans over the empty seats, you first think it is a tragedy that no one is there to enjoy it. Then you realize that you are there.

The music-making is so personal -- Gould rolls chords in an unorthodox way, bringing out strands of counterpoint that make the piece sound utterly fresh -- that it seems an act of meditation that could never have taken place under public scrutiny. And when the camera shows Gould walking in the woods on the northern shore of Lake Superior, you become completely convinced that you are hearing the music as the composer himself must have heard it -- straight from the mouth of God.

What the best of Sony's CDs and videos indisputably demonstrate is that -- when he was at his best (in music he loved with all his heart) -- there was, indeed, no one who could touch Glenn Gould.

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