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Glenn Gould @ 80: We must respect his recordings, but we don't have to love them

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The vast majority of classical musicians are trained to think and say that their interpretive art is always in the service of the composer. One of the reasons Glenn Gould stands out in the vast sea of composers and performers is that his art was creative as much as interpretive, and it was largely in the service of himself, not the composer.

You can love Mozart or Beethoven and expect to get more-or-less similar, fine performances from dozens of interpreters. But Gould and whichever composer’s work he is bending to his will is a love-or-hate proposition that evokes a strong response.

That alone should summon immense respect for Gould’s legacy. At the same time, it’s okay to say thanks but no thanks to his peculiar take on music.

It’s fascinating to look at how marketing in the modern world works. Much of it starts well before a product — be it a Hollywood film, a new SUV or a pop band — hits the public eye. Through focus groups and other ways of gauging consumer preferences, marketers figure out how to make a product appeal to the widest-possible number of people.

By it’s very nature, it’s a process that breeds blandness and predictability, be it the plot of a romantic comedy or the menu and décor at Jack Astor’s.

The classical music world falls into the same trap, with programmers choosing repertoire that works at the box office, and young artists working their way through an audition and competition system where the goal is to appeal to the greatest number of judges possible rather than galvanizing or polarizing them with something out-of-the-ordinary. It’s too risky.

Fortunately, along come people like Steve Jobs, filmmakers like David Cronenberg — and musicians like Glenn Gould — who don’t care what the public thinks. Instead, they make such a compelling package of their own ideas, that they actually change people’s perceptions rather than playing to them.

As a former piano student, Gould has loomed large in my life since childhood. I’ve been listening to his Bach as well as other interpretations for a long time. And, no matter how hard I keep trying, I don’t like them.

To try and put it as simply as possible, I find that Gould spends too much time worrying about highlighting the structure of a piece and not enough time telling the musical tale. There are more trees than forest in Gould’s aesthetic.

University of Toronto professor Mark Kingwell, in his book-length philosophical/psychological/sociological meditation Glenn Gould, addresses exactly what I mean.

Kingwell cites E.M. Forster’s explanation of the difference between story and plot (the italics are Kingwell’s): “the queen died and the king died is a story; the queen died and then the king died of grief is a plot” — adorned narrative, something that has act and consequence as well as a sense of resolution. “Not just and then, and then, but also and then, therefore, and thus; and thus, therefore, and then.”

 Consider the comparison to music. One may record the notations that indicate music, just as one may record the symbols that encode a narrative or an argument. But the logic of music’s consequence cannot be exhibited except in the playing. The complex structure of the Brandenburg Concertos is available all at once as the score of the piece, but it is fully present only in the temporal experience of hearing the notes in time, pattern and meta-pattern unfolded between one silence and another. And then therefore and thus. And thus therefore and then. The story proceeds. The argument runs.

The piece resolves in the hearing, it plays, but the background tension does not go away. Is this experience of structure inherent in the piece or in our desire for the piece to mean, for the story to make sense.

What I’m trying to say is that Glenn Gould is so focused on the background tension that he fails to address the resolution. The background tension was his muse, his reason for being as an artist.

The fact that he could highlight it so conspicuously, on his terms, is one of the great achievements in the history of 20th century art music.

We also have to remember that this achievement fits the context of its times, as well, complementing the artists and architects and writers whose work underlined the structure of their craft in a way where structure is the form, rather than form acting as an envelope for structure.

Centre Georges Pompidou

One conspicuous example is the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which opened in 1977. Its skeleton and mechanical systems are its architectural details — a particularly sharp contrast to a city rich in elegant forms.

A raft of recent reissues by Sony Classical (working with the Glenn Gould estate in Toronto) provides a fascinating refresher course in Gould’s uncommon  passion for structure.

Among the noteworthy releases are the Complete CBC Broadcasts, and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon’s three-part Gould-and-Bach documentary for the CBC (strangely highbrow events for a medium that now feeds us Wipeout and the Real Housewives of New Jersey).

For fans of Gould’s Bach, there is a 38-CD and six-DVD and illustrated book set, packaged in an elegant blue box with embossed lettering. It comes complete with Gould’s original liner notes from the Columbia/CBS records and contextual essay by Gould scholar Michael Stegemann.

The most recent arrival in Sony’s “Glenn Gould Collection” is Glenn Gould Plays Sonatas, Fantasies & Variations, a four-CD box that doesn’t have a single note of Bach in it.

The first disc is the music of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Prokofiev. The second is Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius. Next comes Alban Berg, Ernst Krenek as well as Canadians Oskar Morawetz, István Anhalt, Jacques Hétu and Barbara Pentland. The final CD features Robert Schumann’s Op. 47 Piano Quartet (with members of the Juilliard Quartet) and rarely heard piano music by Georges Bizet.

Every single note on every one of these recordings bears the distinct imprint of Gould’s sensibility. It’s somehow easier to take with Bach than on the composers featured in Sonatas, Fantasias & Variations.

Pointillistic Scriabin and Grieg is frankly hard to accept, even for someone deeply interested in hearing each piece’s underlying structure.

In my opinion, the most musically successful interpretations in this box are the three Sonatinas and Kyllikki by Jean Sibelius, which have a nice balance of structure and flow. Here, the weirdness comes from the multiple sets of microphones Gould used to change the quality of the sound — at times, our ears are right next to the piano strings, at others, we have been moved far back in the recording studio, surrounded by the reverberance of the room. It’s fascinating — but also distracting.

We have to be leery of accepting any of these interpretations as reflecting the composer’s original intentions in any way.

The late Montreal composer Jacques Hétu confessed publicly a few years ago how shocked he was the first time he heard Gould’s recording of his Variations pour piano, which came in at nearly twice the length intended.

Hétu described hearing Gould’s distortions as, “rather like the negative of a photograph in comparison to the actual print.” What we hear is Gould; Hétu’s score is merely a pretext.

This is shocking. It’s also wonderful that a musician came along in a world devoted to careful interpretation, violently upturned the furniture and continues to captivate listeners 30 years after his death.

We need more people with the attitude and the technique to back it up to do just that in order to keep art music alive. But that doesn’t mean that we also have to love what we hear.

For the full Sony Classical Glenn Gould experience, click here.

And, for the curious, here is a section from one of Bruno Monsaingeon’s sessions with Gould, focused on the Scriabin recording:

John Terauds

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