Gould Recordings 11-15 – Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schoenberg, R. Strauss

This is a broad range of music; I’ve tried my best to devote a paragraph to each recording.  I also intend (soon) to write longer entries about Gould’s Beethoven Concertos, and also the Glenn Gould record collection I’ve started.  Once again, just about all this music should turn up on Spotify or YouTube if you want to hear it and offer your thoughts as comments.  I want to stress again the amateurism of all this – I just thought it would be fun to share my impressions, and you should feel free to share yours![Note – The numbers I’m using to designate these recordings aren’t in any sense canonical.  I’m just using the numbers on Wikipedia’s list of Recordings (taken from the Bazzana biography – I had to make some changes there, as some recordings were omitted).

Brahms – Ten Intermezzi – 1961 – I’ve tried to say something about this one before.  I bought this recording on a double CD in 1995 (packaged along with Gould’s later Brahms recording), and have listened to it probably 50-100 times.  Listening to it in the context of reading about Gould and also all the other (non-Brahms) recordings Gould made around this time made it more puzzling.  Gould was well-known for shunning the standard Romantic repertoire (“no Chopin” was dogmatically adhered to, and often remarked upon), but here is Romantic music par excellence.  That said, what’s striking about this Romantic piano music is its minimalism.  Gould’s later Brahms recording has a lot of rapid chromatic scales, and dynamic contrasts.  This one does not.  Most of these pieces are simple A-B-A structures; no elaborate sonata-forms here.  It sounds like lullabies (especially the first one, in E-Flat-Major, which I actually can play on the piano).  I also noticed Gould’s penchant for playing up the contrapuntal possibilities in any given recording.  You can hear this starting with the second piece, which starts to sound muddled if you lose focus for just a second.  Sometimes it makes you do the aural equivalent of crossing your eyes and blurring your vision.  But when you bring yourself back you get the sense that was something perhaps intended?

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major (with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic) – 1961 – Somewhere in his liner notes, Gould suggests that this was his favorite of Beethoven’s Concertos.  After listening to each of his recordings of each of the five at least 15-20 times (they’re really great, which is why I’m going to write separately about them sometime soon) I understand why he’s selected the 4th as his favorite.  It’s the most subtly textured, least triumphal/militaristic, most understated.  It’s also the one that’s the least like the others.  It begins very gently, its second movement is in some ways more discordant, and its final movement has a breathtaking, exciting theme that teases in its never quite coming to fruition.  Gould performs his own cadenzas at the end of the first and third movements I think.  As usual, the piano rings.  In a way, you can see this concerto as moving towards the Romantic, even as compared with the later #5, which is in a lot of ways more straightforward and even simplistic (Gould claimed to hate it, often cancelling promised performances).

Bach – The Art of the Fugue (on Organ) – 1962 – I’ve been told that the human mind cannot multitask.  HOWEVER – listening to this recording makes me doubt this thesis, at least in Gould’s case.  If you’ve ever tried to play Bach (I’ve gotten myself to be able to hack out three of the two-part inventions) it’s maddeningly difficult to do.  What sounds great on record (especially Gould records) is the intertwining melodies, the leading and following undulations.  Trying to play these pieces in a way that brings out the melodiousness of each melody drives you crazy, especially at first.  If you miss just one note in one hand, the whole thing ends in a train-wreck about half a beat later.  Listen to Gould’s hypnotizing Art of the Fugue, and you will quickly forget that one person, with only two hands, is playing.  The organ sound might trick a 21st century listener into thinking a computer is doing this, or maintaining some of the rhythm while the performer is just jotting out one simple melody.  Of course that isn’t the case.  2, 3, seemingly 4 parts bounce along, syncopations and all, both serious and playful in a way that can eat into your mind.  If you listen to this recording a couple of times, for the next few days you’ll just be intoning them to yourself while you walk down the street.

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor – 1962 – Gould loved to tell people he thought Mozart couldn’t write a concerto.  It was one of these sorts of contrarian pronouncements he seemed to pride himself on, and also, according to Bazzana, a note he hit too many times when interviewed.  I liked this one well enough; it’s funny listening to it having heard the Beethoven concertos so many times.  There is a distinction – something in the archness of the first movement’s theme says “Mozart” (to me at least).  I was also proud of myself that after listening only a couple of times, I could make a reasonable surmise about the final movement – that it’s a theme and variations, not a rondo.  One quick googling and – presto – it turns out I’m right.  Maybe that’s just obvious to music-theory types (of which I’m certainly not one).  For me it felt a little like it felt the first time I could look at all the letters in a long word and figure out what they all meant together.

Schoenberg – Piano Concerto, Op. 42 – 1962 – This was released on the same LP as the above-discussed Mozart concerto.  That’s a strange juxtaposition, to say the least (though reading a little about this piece on the internet finds one critic saying this concerto is “just like Mozart.”)  Maybe this whole atonal thing is just way more clear to some people (if you’re out there, please comment!)  But to me, it’s such a muddle.  I don’t mean this in a “a 5-year-old could have made that!” Philistine sort of way.  I’m willing to believe there’s something to this music that I have not trained my ear to listen for.  My usual experience with pieces like this is that at first, they sound like such an affront to my ears I can’t make heads or tails of them.  Then after a few more listenings, it softens out and starts to feel like I’m listening to Debussy or jazz.  But I still can’t get a hold of it. There are no melodies that catch in my mind, no moments I look forward to (or back at) while I listen.  It becomes atmospheric and emotional, even program music (which I’m sure was not the intent).  Without tonality to attach itself onto, my mind has to go into a more impressionistic mode, and ascribe non-musical events and feelings to clusters of sound, which, again, would seem to be the opposite of the “overly intellectual” reputation this music generally has.  And as to Gould’s interpretation, I can’t claim I have anywhere to start on that subject.  You could play be 5 recordings by different artists and I doubt whether I could even tell I was listening to the same thing.

Richard Strauss – Enoch Arden (with Claude Rains, voice) – 1962 – This is an odd one.  It’s music centered a poem I guess (?) written by Tennyson, read aloud by a narrator (Claude Rains, who Wikipedia says played Captain Renault in Casablanca?  Who knew?) .  It relates the story of Enoch Arden, who falls in love, has children with his wife, disappears on a sea voyage and after 10 years is taken for dead.  He returns to find his wife having re-married, decides he’ll just hide his identity and eventually dies alone.  Claude Rains narrates this story in melodramatic tones; Gould plays piano music Strauss wrote to set the mood and transition between different parts of the story.  It reminded me of course of Peter and the Wolf, but that recording fills me with childlike wonderment (I think Leonard Bernstein narrates the version I know from when I was little).  While Brooke and I listened to Gould/Rains’ Enoch Arden, though, in the car driving across western Michigan, we were just alternately confused, alarmed, amused (in a kitschy way I don’t usually get amused), you get the idea.  Definitely strange.  The piano didn’t seem like more than just a flourish here or there, like might happen during a children’s program at church…


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