I’ll talk about the interview first. It’s called “At Home with Glenn Gould” and is in 9 8-minute segments on YouTube if you want to listen. It’s from the late 50’s, and shed a lot of light on my experiences of these recordings so far. What I think came out most was a sense of humility and intellectual playfulness you might not get just from reading what other people have to say about Gould. For example – when the interviewer asks him about his String Quartet, he says that it didn’t “entirely come off”, even though he spent 2 years working on it. His perception of that Quartet’s success accorded with mine; I thought it was definitely ambitious but hard to fit together. He tried to explain how he was going for something post-romantic, that would set aside the desire for “the big line” (he mentioned Wagner) but still find something else to unify it. I can tell what he means, but don’t really hear that succeed in the string quartet.
Another notable moment in the interview is when he explains how his playing style had been strongly influenced by his having played the organ early on. On the organ, you can’t achieve dynamic differences by pressing the keys more or less firmly, since they’re not attached to hammers like they are on a piano. He explains that this led him to use other qualities to achieve what dynamic contrasts often do on the piano.
He also talks about visiting Russia during the cold war, how they reacted to his performances, and other things you might enjoy.
A Few More Records I’ve listened to:
Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 in C Major/Bach’s Piano #5 Concerto in F Minor – My reaction to this record was largely similar to the other Beethoven/Bach record I already wrote about. There’s something Gould is able to bring out in Bach that sounds entirely new to me; in Beethoven, it sounds more straightforward. That is not to say the Beethoven is not enjoyable to listen to, because it is. This may also be because the Beethoven concertos don’t have moments when the pianist’s virtuosity comes to the fore quite as much as in Bach, where the relentlessness of the undulating arpeggios, after a while, becomes so overwhelming in its effect. The Beethoven more exhibits a tunefulness and sense of fun (especially the 3rd movements of each of the concertos).
Haydn Piano Sonata 3 in E Flat Major/Mozart Sonata 10 in C Major/Mozart Fantasia and Fugue in C Major – These are Gould’s first forays into recording these two composers’ work. The first thing is that again, there is less sheer technical brilliance here, mostly I think because the underlying compositions don’t demand it. There is far less polyphony; the left hand is generally playing backing chords while the right hand plays simple melodies. While listening to these records, I’ve been re-reading Jane Austen novels, and there is a consonance between them (they’re close in time of composition as well). There is an order and a simplicity to it. But, just like in the title of Austen’s second novel, there is both sense and sensibility in both Haydn and Mozart. The Haydn sonata begins and ends with the expected “sensible” sort of sound; the middle of the second movement, though, assumes a melancholy air of the “sensibility” you’re more likely to associate with the romantics than with Haydn. That’s the driving dialectic of the Mozart sonata too.
Gould finds an intimacy in the performing of those melancholy moments that remind me of the Brahms record I wrote about a few posts ago. Somehow the simple notes of those sections take on a larger significance; there is a feeling of cosmic hopelessness they give voice to for just a few moments in the middle of the rest of these pieces. And though Gould (like Austen) is generally known for eschewing the more extreme manifestations of romanticism, in both cases, there is a note of it, and not only as something to criticize or circumscribe. Just like Marianne really does garner a bit more narrative sympathy than the most recent movie might give her, Gould really does give voice to this inner dramatic tension that you might think he would cast aside.
Also on this record – the “Fantasia and Fugue” is striking in that it is polyphonic and therefore has that sound of virtuosity about it. The fugue has that quality of interwoven-ness it’s so hard to keep together but is also so impressive (maybe for that very reason).
Bach Partitas 5-6 and two Fugues, Bach Partitas 1-2 and the Italian Concerto
These are two records but I don’t have separate things to say about them.
I have trouble relating to the Partitas. They’re six or seven-part Baroque “suites,” collections of pieces of varying tempos and forms that originally trace back to music accompanying dances. I can listen to them and enjoy them, but each piece is too separate, and seemingly too disjoint, for me to make much of the whole.
The Italian Concerto, though, has that more familiar 3-part structure (medium-slow-fast) that allows me to find closure in the listening experience. Just like the earlier-written-about Beethoven concertos (and the Bach), the three parts feel very familiar to me. The first two movements form a contrast that the third resolves. That’s not something I really hear with the Partitas, maybe just because they’re in 7 parts. I don’t know. Gould’s performance of the final movement of the Italian concerto, though has a sense of such brightness, but still urgency, you just get the feeling he’s created such a more intimate bond between himself and the music of Bach than any of the others.
Berg, Schoenberg and Webern – This record is of 20th century music, with all that entails. I can put it on in the background, but I cannot do much with it when I sit to listen intently on it. It’s not totally atonal, and I know the point is supposed to be that you have to think about it, since you don’t have the luxury of your associations with key-signatures and harmony to fall back on, but it just ends up feeling more like background to me. I know from reading that Gould put a lot of stock in 20th century music (he apparently had what he described in “At Home with Glenn Gould” has a 2-year period of twelve-tone concerns, which he seemed mildly embarrassed to talk about). I want to do more reading about this question, but – I guess off the cuff I see no particular reason to be setting harmony aside. Does dissonance have a role? Sure, but why should it be the only thing one puts into a piece of music?