TORONTO — Since Glenn Gould’s death in 1982, a few days after his 50th birthday, his fame has grown steadily, largely through the issue and reissue of his many recordings for Columbia Masterworks (later Sony Classical) on CD, in various compilations. At the same time, multiple biographies as well as collections of the Toronto-born pianist’s radio documentaries, letters, articles, liner notes and lectures have been published.
Now Sony Classical has released one of the central elements of the Gould archive previously unavailable: a remarkable 10-DVD box (19 hours in all) containing most of the pianist’s CBC television programs from 1954 to 1977.
The CBC (both radio and television) provided something close to a professional “home” for Gould, most notably after he renounced public concert-giving in 1964 at the age of 31. As uncomfortable as it was for Gould to perform on tour before live audiences, he seemed thoroughly at ease in front of microphones and television cameras — one of many fascinating anomalies of this futuristic artist.
The CBC, aware of Gould as a national treasure – not just musically, but as a home-grown cultural icon – provided him with something close to artistic carte blanche. Gould’s output for the national broadcaster was fantastically prolific, including such arcana as a 10-part radio series on Schoenberg to mark the Viennese master’s centenary in 1974.
Schoenberg’s imprint also looms large in this new DVD set, including a televised performance of the Phantasy for violin and piano in which Yehudi Menuhin partners Gould. (Their pre-performance chat includes Gould’s wry comment: “Putting all your cards on the table, Yehudi, you really don’t like the Schoenberg, do you?”)
Schoenberg was also the subject of one of four lengthy conversations, taped in Toronto but co-produced by the BBC and PBS, between Gould and Humphrey Burton, the noted British television director, host and author. The two sit in a bare studio, equipped with nothing but chairs, tables, glasses of water, a Steinway grand piano, assorted television cameras and microphones.
Those four conversations may not only be the highlight of the set, but the most erudite and bracing dialogues about music ever shown on the tube. Both to illustrate his arguments and to indulge his partner, Gould plays many examples at the piano. The first conversation opens with Variation 4 of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, after which the two men engage in a no-holds-barred debate about the roles of performer and listener, and the advantages of recording over the concert experience. Their conversation is bracketed by the late John Culshaw’s serenely magisterial intro and extro. Musical discussion on this level on public television today is unimaginable.
The other three Gould-Burton conversations are equally fine: one on Beethoven, another on Schoenberg, the last on Richard Strauss. Again, there is a great deal of Gould at the piano. During the Strauss program, Gould plays (and sings) – from memory – excerpts from “Elektra,” “Metamorphosen” and the “Ophelia” Songs. Indeed, every note on these DVDs – including each Lieder accompaniment, the Webern Concerto for 9 Instruments, Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” music by Krenek and Casella, Hindemith’s Trumpet Sonata, Walton’s “Façade” and a great deal more – is played from memory, testament to the pianist’s phenomenal intellectual capacity.
The set also contains the only video of Gould in performance before a live audience, beginning with a scintillating rendition of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 filmed in 1954 – the year before his breakthrough recording of the “Goldberg” Variations. It includes Gould’s own amazing fugal cadenza, with its harmonic tint in the style of Max Reger.
Gould conducts and plays the piano in a moving rendition of Bach’s Cantata BWV 54, with Russell Oberlin, counter-tenor. A program called “The Anatomy of the Fugue” surveys the history of fugue from Orlando di Lasso to Hindemith. Another examines the variation form, weaving examples from Sweelinck to Webern.
Every viewer will have his or her favorites from all this material. Gould’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 aired in 1962, while he was still giving live concerts. Eyebrows went up when Gould started playing and recording this repertoire, considered “Horowitz territory” and far from the musical realms with which Gould had identified himself. But how he plays it! Yet another resounding tour de force is his performance of his own transcription of Ravel’s transcription, for one piano, of “La Valse.”
To be sure, there is much quirkiness in the set, and renditions of works the pianist obviously didn’t love. Gould was impervious to notions of tradition, to put it mildly. He deploys a “harpsipiano” for some Bach performances, an instrument that looks like a piano, but sounds like a harpsichord. This was evidence of his penchant for mechanical adjustments to his preferred instruments, often resulting in an intrusive “hiccup” sound effect (which the pianist welcomed.) Gould believed that a piano need not necessarily sound like a piano, and sometimes asked his technicians to perform surgery on an instrument to achieve a more harpsichord-like sound, especially for Bach’s music. This was done by positioning the hammers closer to the strings, and adjusting the after-touch mechanism. The effect of the surgery was, Gould said, “a slight nervous tic in the middle register which in the slower passages can be heard emitting a sort of hiccup…” but which he called a “charming idiosyncrasy.”
Given the provenance of these recordings, the technical quality of the video is variable. The only track I found difficult to watch was a performance of Beethoven’s Variations in F, Op. 34, which aired in 1970, since the audio and video were not quite synchronized.
No matter what music he addressed, the ecstatically rigorous Gould played as if he were the composer, with irresistible focus on the structural bricks and mortar of a piece. He would intellectually de-construct and then re-construct a score as if the act of re-creation were really one of creation. (From Gould the actual composer, we have here only the brief and brilliant Baroque parody, “So You Want to Write a Fugue?”)
With his pioneering recording of the “Goldberg” Variations, Gould changed our conceptions of how his beloved Bach could be performed. Bach on the piano had never before been played with such fleetness, fabulously clear articulation, bracing rhythmic thrust, soaring virtuosity, vibrancy and thoughtfulness – let alone by a 22-year-old! He challenged every assumption about concert life, and made fearless predictions, many of which have been proven incorrect, while others have come to pass. (Gould said in a 1966 interview “the concert hall is dead…don’t put your money that people will still be going to concerts in the year 1999.” On the other hand, that same year he correctly foresaw the huge expansion in home listening and viewing, and that the listener of the future would create the exact conditions he wanted at home.) One wonders what Gould would have made of our new digital world: of e-mail, iTunes downloads and the personal computer. In any case, the continued fascination with his work is evidence of its enduring significance, and this new set of DVDs of his CBC telecasts is a crucial pillar of the Gould legacy.
Stephen Cera (MusicalAmerica.com) / December 16, 2011