by Walter Simmons
THE GLENN GOULD SILVER JUBILEE ALBUM. Glenn Gould, piano, etc. CBS MASTERWORKS M2X 35914 (two LPs), produced by Andrew Kazdin, Paul Myers, and Glenn Gould.
BEETHOVEN/LISZT: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68: First movement. GOULD: So You Want to Write a Fugue (performed by Elizabeth Benson-Guy, soprano; Anita Darian, mezzo-soprano; Charles Bressler, tenor; Donald Gramm, baritone; Juilliard String Quartet; Vladimir Golschmann, conductor). R. STRAUSS: Ophelia Lieder, Op. 67 (with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano). SCRIABIN: Two Preludes, Op. 57. SCARLATTI: Three Sonatas. C.P.E. BACH: Wurttemberg Sonata No. 1. A GLENN GOULD FANTASY.
It is now 25 years since Glenn Gould’s brilliantly idiosyncratic debut recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations stunned the music world. That recording set the tone for a career that, while consistently provocative, has offered unparalleled instrumental mastery and awesomely penetrating musicianship in the service of a refreshingly original and inquiring intellect. Whether or not the listener happens to share the pianist’s inclination towards a particular interpretive vagary, often chosen explicitly for shock value (and Gould’s discography contains at least something to offend or infuriate everyone), there is no denying that he has been virtually alone amid a pseudo-highbrow world of “serious” music dominated by intellectually vacuous superstars and their mediocre musicianship. It is to CBS’ distinct credit that throughout the years in which Gould has been absent from the recital stage, it has provided him with a forum on which to share with us his musical insights.
One disc of this special two-record set presents a varied potpourri of unusual musical items, recorded between 1964 and 1972, and apparently lying around ever since, until the appropriate opportunity arose. The other record is called “A Glenn Gould Fantasy,” in which the pianist indulges another of his chief enthusiasms—the creation of elaborately mixed and edited audio productions. Gould has produced a number of such aural documentaries—not all specifically related to music—for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, generating the sort of controversy that seems to accompany most of his endeavors.
As the list of contents shows, the first disc covers a wide musical range, but each little piece receives the microscopic attention to detail that marks all of Gould’s work. For me, the most rewarding item is the first movement from the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Is it not typically perverse of Gould to select a portion of the one Beethoven symphony whose effect is most dependent on orchestral color? However, my skepticism disappeared when I heard the first phrase. Gould brings this music to life with a depth of understanding that rivals that of the great Beethoven conductors, and the absence of the orchestra, rather than a liability, becomes a virtue, as the pianist exerts precise control over the course of every musical strand. The radiance of the piano tone itself and the novelty of hearing certain textures and figurations on the piano are particularly exciting. Only during the development section does Gould’s highly analytical interpretation draw attention to weaknesses in the structure of the movement itself, making it sound even sillier than usual.
The other particularly interesting item is Gould’s own little composition So You Want to Write a Fugue. Since it was recorded in 1964, this gem has floated around on various limited issues, but this is its first “official” commercial release. Scored for vocal quartet and string quartet, it is a rare accomplishment: a funny piece of music that can actually be enjoyed as music or as fun, and whose wit is integrated into the musical structure itself. Without explaining the joke, I will say that it is a tour de force of contrapuntal technique, style mimicry, quotation weaving, and interaction between words and music. The performers manage well with the work’s considerable difficulties in execution, although the sound quality is awfully tight and constricted.
The remainder of the pieces are all in the way of odds and ends, although each is done thoughtfully and in exquisite taste. Only in the sonata by C.P.E. Bach did I feel that an effort was made to force more meaning than there is into the essentially empty music.
The second disc helps us to know Glenn Gould the man, although his articles and reviews over the years have modified the early view of him as a gifted sociopath into the impression of a verbally articulate, witty, and unconventional thinker with a wide range of interests (I remember with amusement his analytical reflection on the artistic significance of Petula Clark) who happens to be an eccentric, solitary sort. Perhaps I should add that, as someone who agrees that public musical performance is an anachronistic social vestige, soon to become obsolete, which appeals to the lower qualities of the audience, and is limited in artistic potential compared with the possibilities of recording—possibilities that Gould has been among the more adventurous in exploring—I look with approval on both his retirement from public performance and on his use of the recording medium as an artistic end in itself. Nevertheless, “A Glenn Gould Fantasy” suggests quite explicitly some deeper aspects of the pianist’s professional behavior.
The “Fantasy” takes the form of a radio program in which Gould confronts an assortment of questioners: a cerebral German abstractionist, a snide English stylistic purist, an American avant-garde hipster, and a belligerent Hungarian social realist. All but the last are portrayed, in appropriate dialect, by Gould himself. The “group” discusses such topics as the performance on the piano of music originally conceived for other instruments, the problem of retaining spontaneity in repeated performances, the recording of music as analogous to the creation of film, and the significance of Gould’s sound documentaries. Gould has covered much of this ground elsewhere, although those unfamiliar with his points of view on these matters, and those unfamiliar with his various radio and television personae, will probably find the production entertaining.
But, in truth, this “Fantasy” is a tremendously self-indulgent ego trip; much of the 55 minutes is wasted on sophomoric foolishness, and a good deal is simply not as funny or as interesting as Gould seems to think it is. One gains the impression that Gould is rather like a precocious child who entertains himself in elaborate play with expensive toys in lieu of human interaction. In discussing the themes that underlie his “Solitude Trilogy” of sound documentaries, he describes his interest in people “who want to be in the world, but not of the world,” in people who refuse “to be drawn into the Zeitgeist,” the “tremendously tyrannical force [that] has to be overthrown in one’s life.” It is not a very radical leap to suggest that the themes of isolation and solitude have extreme personal significance for Gould, who, renouncing the dangers of spontaneous interaction with reality, has found through technological manipulations a means of exerting total control over all communication with the surrounding society (through recordings, articles, sound documentaries, and fabricated hypothetical interviews). There is thus a hot-house quality to his humor and to the imaginary personages with whom he populates his fantasies that reflects a psychological world into which stimuli are carefully filtered. That this may be an underlying psychodynamic does not invalidate the decisions he has made as a musician, nor even the ostensible rationales for these decisions. But it does shed some light on this reclusive personality who has been a unique and enigmatic figure on the musical horizon for the past quarter-century, and on the strange objective intimacy of his musicianship as well.