Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Record" review

My buddy over at Banjo52 is always offering movie and CD reviews, so I thought I'd take a page from that book by divulging that I recently surrendered my Ebay virginity in order to buy the Glenn Gould Complete Original Jacket Collection (read about it here:, an 80 CD audio orgy to the late Canadian pianist (out of print for about a year now, hence the need for Ebay).

I started off listening to the Mozart sonatas, b/c many critics consider those recordings to be Gould at his worst--Gould himself missed no opportunity to express his disdain for Mozart--and I've been struggling to play them myself.

Sure, there are some moments where I'd like to slap Gould upside the head, or just chuckle in disbelief at the ludicrous tempos and almost willfully quirky phrasing and articulation. But there are many more moments where I sit enraptured and stunned--at his incredibly subtle touch and virtuosic technique, yes, but more so at the ways in which he turns these brilliant but played-to-death pieces into brand-new wonders. At first you think he's playing them all "wrong," but after a few minutes you begin to wonder if everyone else is playing them "wrong." For there are scores of other interpretations out there (Richter being the best I've heard, even though he also disliked Mozart), but after hearing Gould's all the rest sort of blur--not that they're not good, and distinct in their own ways, but that his version is SOOOO different, all the rest start to seem the same by comparison. Every other pianist has his own planet, but Gould comes from a whole different galaxy.

There's no middle ground on Gould. I thought I'd found one, in loving his Bach and steering clear of nearly all his other recordings, but now I realize I'm in for the duration, head over heels, up the creek of musical enthrallment without a paddle.

Don't take my word for it; grab a recording of the Goldberg Variations (he made two, one in 1955, one in 1981, both superlative). I dare you to hear Bach the same way again. The 1981 recording almost singlehandedly fired my interest in classical music.

You won't be the first to be "converted" to Bach, or classical music entirely. In A Romance on Three Legs, Katie Hafner's fascinating biography of Gould through his pet Steinway (no talking pianos, just a focus on the instrument), there's a story of a truck driver (habitually hostile to classical music) who happened upon Gould's Goldberg on the radio; before he had a chance to change stations, he had to make a turn, and by the time he had his hands free, he no longer wanted to switch.

In this strange, media-saturated world in which we live, that's about as positive a review as you can get.


  1. I don't know anything about Gould but I think I have a biography. I probably thought that if I read about him - more than the few articles I've read about how eccentric he was - maybe I would understand classical music. I guess I'll go dig that out.
    By the way, I don't use film, just good glass, one lens anyway. It's true with lenses, you get exactly what you pay for.

  2. I recently read the "definitive" bio by Kevin Bazzana: it's very thorough, and fascinating to me, but I'm not sure if you need to be a "convert" to appreciate it.

    Romance on Three Legs (Hafner) is a lot more accessible; 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (about 15 years old) is even more accessible.

  3. " . . . after a few minutes you begin to wonder if everyone else is playing them 'wrong.'"

    That's a great line and thought. I wonder if you've hit on the measuring stick for all greatness in the arts. There's only one Gould, one Mozart, and so forth.

    Of all the significant writers in the canon, how many sound exactly like a notable predecessor or contemporary? I haven't done my research, and this is not an objective test, but I bet the answer is "none."

    Then, of course, there's a companion issue, one that's contextual and therefore bothers the quasi-half-assed-New Critic in me: as the saying goes, "You have to get here to get there." Could there be Whitman if there hadn't been Wordsworth, for example? Academic scholarship might over-do the search for influences on any given artist, but exploring the question somewhat seems reasonable (or necessary?).

    Don't people say we had to have Mozart before we could have Beethoven? So, in a related field, I wonder who had to come first in order to open the door to Gould. Or Coltrane. Or Willie Nelson.

    I think it's widely accepted that bluegrass had to have Scots-Irish music in order to be re-born as Appalachian music. Yet the banjo itself was born in Africa, or so I read somewhere. One more vote for multiculturalism.

  4. I have both his Goldberg recordings. Many consider the first by far the best -- what's your opinion?

  5. I favor 1981, perhaps b/c I heard it first, or the acoustics are better--but I do think there's more contrast, mellowness, and subtlety there.

    Some might say 1951 is more "true Gould." I wouldn't argue, but I also wouldn't necessarily consider that a plus--he's SO extreme, softening some corners can be an improvement.