Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gouldberg Variations?

When I first brought to my teacher the idea of playing GBV, he embraced the idea...with caution. His warning: beware of Gould! The piece is so closely identified with Glenn Gould that it's impossible to escape (ultimately unflattering) comparisons whenever one plays it. People who know the piece very well potentially hear everything you do, and everything you don't do, through the lens of Gould's own playing. What a terrifying thought.

There are four complete, as well as three excerpted GBV recordings Gould made (that I know of, at least). The complete versions: 1955 studio recording, 1959 Salzburg recital performance, the 1981 audio recording and the 1981 video (all on youtube--the video and the audio recording are composed mostly of different takes). Everyone's favorite Glenn Gould question: which is the best Goldberg recording??

Like I've said before, there's something so characteristic and so different about Gould's playing that makes it instantly identifiable, and, to me at least, instantly more attractive than anyone else's. Far from being replicable, this aspect of his playing is also a total mystery. Though I and other people claim to recognize other pianists' playing as well, for me the sounds of piano-playing can almost be divided to two distinct categories: Gould and everyone else. This is largely why I don't really enjoy listening to any other recordings of Bach (besides Rosalyn Tureck, an interesting exception to be discussed later). Perahia, Schiff, Dinnerstein, et al don't really stand out from each other. (Dinnerstein's recording in particular made a big splash when it came out a couple of years ago, but I really don't hear what's so special about it. The out-of-tune notes also bother me a lot!! Unfortunately I can't find it on youtube...just don't listen too closely!) They all play nicely for sure. But there's that something special missing...

Anyway, my favorite way to keep from comparing my own playing to Gould's is naturally to compare his own playing to itself. For those who don't know much about Gould, he was an eccentric character to say the least. I recently saw this documentary, which was a great movie for someone who knew about him mostly through his own playing and writings. Just from listening to his recordings, one can get a sense of the general story of his life: an incredible genius who kinda got steadily derailed by his own craziness as his short life progressed. My favorite Gould recordings are mostly the early recordings of his 20's: the Salzburg concert, the Beethoven concertos with Toronto Symphony, the Bach concertos with Golschmann, etc. The later recordings--eg the English suites or the Mozart sonatas--sound like the playing of someone who's just trying too hard to shock us, to prove that he's different and unique. Gould was famous for saying Mozart lived too long--a typical type of public statement from his later years, and one that I have no doubt he didn't fully believe, given his phenomenal early performances of Mozart.

The documentary confirmed this general storyline. Cornelia Foss, who left her husband for Gould, and in turn left him, tells the story of Gould's growing paranoia, caused by or perhaps causing his deepening dependence on cocktails of prescription drugs. Particularly interesting facts I learned: in the early years, he would often give interviews without prepared notes or remarks. Later on, he insisted that entire interviews be scripted in his obsessive attempts to fastidiously censor his public image. According to Foss, he became decreasingly charming as a result; he almost lost his personality in his attempt to control it. (He also, incidentally, became extremely conceited and pretentious in said public statements...examples forthcoming...).

So Gould's recordings generally reflect his declining health and social circumstances, BUT...the 1981 GBV recording is, I have recently come to believe, a spectacular exception. The debut recording and Salzburg performance are fantastic, of course, but they seem just a bit too flippant for GBV. If you asked me just a few months ago, I would have told you the 1981 recording is too slow, too strange, too measured, and too calculated. After all, the aria is as simple as could be; I'm sure Bach had in mind the 1955 tempo over the 1981. But Gould transforms the aria completely; he plays it as if it's the last thing he'll ever play, as if it's the most stunningly beautiful thing ever written. Which, of course, it is. Some of the variations are a little crazy, there's no doubt. But there's this constant sense of grandeur that runs through the whole thing that is, I think, altogether fitting, and missing from the early recording and performance.

A final fact from the documentary: According to Cornelia Foss, Gould always said he would die when he was 50; the stroke that hospitalized him came just days after the GBV recording was released, two days after his 50th birthday. To me, it looks like he's about ready to kick it right here at the very end. Coincidence?? Who knows....

1 comment:

  1. There's another Gould recording of the GBV: tape of a 1954 live CBC broadcast ... I'll let you borrow it one of these days ... :)

    I agree that many of the late Gould recordings sound like he's straining to sound odd and idiosyncratic -- except, I think, for the final GBV recording. You have to think that he knew, somehow, that it was his last, and put everything he could into it. It's pretty extraordinary (even though I'm not sure I'd pick it over the '55 recording if you held a gun to my head)