Two Concertos (Concerti?)

The third major-release record Gould recorded again pairs Bach and Beethoven.  Gould selected Beethoven’s 2nd, in B Flat Major, and Bach’s D Minor Concerto.  They’re both three-movement concertos, following the common three-movement tempo pattern of medium-slow-fast.  Gould was often quoted as saying he wanted to avoid the “competitive” aspect of concerto performance, where the soloist’s virtuosity competes with the orchestra’s collective contribution.  In general, “competition” seems to have been an inherently negative thing for him, and has a lot to do with why he stopping touring entirely after 1964 – largely because for him, the performances felt too much like sport – like the audiences were just showing up like some people do to Nascar events, just hoping to see a crash. You can hear the avoidance of competition a bit in the Beethoven concerto (definitely available in several forms of Spotify – the one that’s on the record is the Leonard Bernstein-conducted version).  There is more of a melding than a set of striking juxtapositions.  Things vacillate smoothly back and forth from piano to orchestra.  I find the piano concerto a puzzling form to make sense of; I know there are concertos I like, such as Mozart’s 20th, and Brahms’ 2nd.  There are five Beethoven concertos, all of which I’ve listened to for years as performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.  They’re all catchy and generally upbeat, though none has that depth of emotion I connect to Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

A little anecdote about Gould’s performance – supposedly when he performed with Von Karajan, and they were rehearsing, the first time they began the first movement, Von Karajan conducted up until the first time the piano makes its entry, and then when Gould started playing, Von Karajan was startled, said something like “interesting!” and sat down and listened rather than conducted the rest of the movement, being so stunned by the piano playing.  I will say there is always something of that in these recordings – they just startle you in certain ways.  Somehow the underlying language of the music seems to be so thoroughly comprehended by the performer, and expressed in the performance, it almost becomes articulate in the way that certain Shakespeare speeches do, the verbal dexterity being so striking.

The Bach concerto, at least its performance, was the favorite of the two for me.  I once read Bach described as always having “driving rhythm” and once again, with Gould’s performance, the tempo and the consistency of it are striking.  There is no piano-orchestra competition here either, though this is because with the smaller orchestra for which Bach wrote (I think it’s more like 10-15 strings?) there is no competition because the piano so dominates.  There is a majesty in that domination – it’s much more like piano solo with string accompaniment.  There are very few purely orchestral parts of the concerto, so the piano just drives on and on through the performance.  What Gould’s interpretations of them bring out most is that insistence.  The themes will first present themselves simply, then in double-time and then quadruple.  As the piano ornamentation develops, it just drives on and on, not unlike a Sonic Youth guitar part (think “Washing Machine” maybe?) and keeps building and building.  All the while (also like Sonic Youth) the tones ring, and though you can tell the keyboard is being pressed only as firmly as is necessary (there is little dynamic variation) the internal structure of the melody (though that feels like the wrong word) continually presents itself to you – it insists on your listening to it.

Next up are some television programs Gould recorded in the late 50’s-early 60’s, if I can find them.

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