Glenn Gould’s Beethoven First and Second Piano Concertos

Of all the first 30 or so recordings or so – most of which I’ve listened to in a pretty focused way, on multiple occasions – the five Beethoven piano concerto recordings have been the ones I’ve returned to most often.  I’ve tried my best to share my thoughts about the first two here.  One note about the order – chronologically, Beethoven wrote #2 (in B-flat major), before #1.

Form

All 5 concertos are in 3 movements, with a first allegro movement, meaning, reasonably fast, that generally follows “sonata” form, a second, slower movement, and a third “rondo” (faster, more playful) movement.

The first movement’s form, as I understand it, is something like this:

  1. (in some cases) a brief introduction
  2. the presentation of the main (A) theme, and then a bridge towards
  3. the presentation of the second (B) theme, in a related key
  4. A repetition of both 2 and 3
  5. The presentation of the A theme in B’s key.
  6. The “development” – both themes (or things like them) considered in a bunch of new keys
  7. The recapitulation, featuring the B theme in A’s key.
  8. A cadenza (an extended solo by the pianist)
  9. A Coda (an extended or embellished ending)

That’s all a little more complicated because the solo instrument (the piano) is sometimes playing on its own throughout 1-7 also, and the orchestra is sometimes on its own during that span, and there are also accompanying parts.

The second movement is usually a slow, more expressive section with a less complicated structure.  Something like A-B-A-B-A, where each are just embellished in different ways on the way through.

The third movement is always a rondo – a catchy, quicker-paced, whimsical ending, whose form is A-B-A-C-A-B-cadenza-A-coda.  Again, simpler than the first movement, and faster.  The multiple A repetitions gather power that the episodes (B and C) interrupt and then lead us back to.

Substance

The form of these pieces is not really what captures the listener (or at least this listener). It’s what’s going on within it.  The form acts on me while listening to create at different times, senses of familiarity, tension, resolution, concern, and elation.

#2 (in C Major)

Gould’s liner notes say that #2 is “less pretentious” than #1.  On the contrary, I find #2 actually sort of straightforward and in some ways just a less fully realized version of #1.  It’s the one that sounds most like Mozart (or, maybe I really mean, music before Beethoven – I have no idea if it really sounds Mozart).  As with each concerto, it begins with a catchy first theme:

Listen here. (these links are all youtube videos of Gould performances)

Then moves through a middle movement that doesn’t really stand out for me, and through to a rondo, whose main theme returns to the playfulness of the first movement’s, but this time, the piano leads the way:

Listen here.

#1 (in C Major)

Again, this is really #2 historically, it was just published earlier for some reason.  Overall, this is probably my favorite out of all five.

What really strikes me about this recording is that Gould wrote his own cadenza.  You really get to the heart of understanding a lot of what Gould was trying to do with his recordings by reading a passage from this record’s liner notes:

I can scarcely hope to conceal the fact that my cadenzas to the first and last movements of this concerto are hardly in pure Beethoven style.  In recent years it has become the commendable practice of musicians to contribute cadenzas which observe an idiomatic identification with the concerto subject.  It should also be remarked that the more discreet and tasteful among us have reserved their contributions for those concertos which have no cadenza by the author.  That these historical qualms were not always prevalent is amply demonstrated by the great many 19th-century writers (including Brahms) who undertook to produce cadenzas for various older works without foregoing their customary vocabulary.  In writing these cadenzas I had in mind a contrapuntal potpourri of motives which was only possible in an idiom considerably more chromatic than that of early Beethoven.

This is Gould’s signature “baroque prose style” – which is probably a generous characterization.  But he’s got something interesting to say here.  Basically, I understand the argument to be – we need to get over treating all this 18th and 19th century music like such museum pieces.  We do not need to write cadenzas that imitate the style in which the original author would have written them, and we do not need to slavishly play the things exactly as they wrote them (even if they wrote cadenzas themselves).  Since a cadenza was historically a place for improvisation, why not write one’s own, in one’s own style?  Why not, in short, engage in a dialogue with the music, and if your own “idiom” is much more chromatic, post-romantic, even Jazz-y, do what you can with that?

The first theme of the first movement starts like this:

Listen here. (it starts after the last few seconds of a previous recording)

This strikes me as both simpler than that of #2 (since it jumps up an octave right away, instead of a major fifth) and also in a way getting more towards the classical-Romantic Beethoven, and less the strictly classical Mozart.  It sounds more like the presentation of a mood or an idea, and less like a construction of reason to be precisely manipulated.

After this theme develops and is tossed back and forth, Gould’s cadenza somehow grabs all of it, and slows its momentum, as though capturing it in a net, trying to bring everything to an almost-halt.  It’s in this video [part 2/2 of the link above] at about 5:00:

[it] effects an organic balance with the work, thereby of course denying the original purpose of cadenza writing as a virtuosic display.

Gould loves to talk (or write) about all the “competitive” pressure of concerto performance (especially live concerto performance, which of course he gave up after just a few years) and how he tries to avoid that.  And so he claims here that the cadenzas are not “virtuosic” displays.  I think, though, virtuosity is in the eye of the beholder – they are certainly breathtaking, difficult, chaotic and staggering moments in this recording, but they are breathtaking as they capture and slow the work itself, returning things to equilibrium, rather than “competing” with the orchestra.  I guess.  There is obviously another way to interpret Gould’s words – as a humble brag.  My impression is, he just had such intuitive technical skill that where to him, something restrained and anti-competitive is happening, to the audience, it feels different.

At any rate, the 1st concerto’s final movement has another great playful theme, again, something quite similar to the 2nd’s, but somehow more joyful, resonant, and textured – and for me anyway, a very real sense of hope and enthusiasm takes hold (not that the second movement after which it comes is in any way dark, but even so, as I listen to it, I wait with such anticipation for the finale):

Listen here

It is a more mature playfulness – livelier in its gravity.  In Gould’s hands it’s surprisingly invigorating and encouraging every time I listen.

I’ll try to write about 3, 4 and 5 in the near future.

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4 Responses to Glenn Gould’s Beethoven First and Second Piano Concertos

  1. Nates says:

    Very interesting, Josh! I just watched some of these videos. Does any other pianist play the way Gould does, with his face so close to the keys? Seems like he’s trying to get inside the piano sometimes! Fascinating to observe.

  2. Josh says:

    It’s definitely a unique approach. In a lot of the popular literature about him, that’s all people can talk about. It’s sort of sad to me taht one obituary I read was headlined something like “innovative pianist known for creative performances, odd behavior dies” – as if those two things were somehow equally important. A lot of people seem to think it was an attention stunt, which is odd because he gave up concert performances only 5 years into his 25 year adult career.

  3. Nates says:

    Yeah, I get that. I wonder if we’re more likely to cling to these idiosyncrasies when talking about musicians, just because it’s so hard to talk about the music itself.

  4. Punam says:

    I had a music class once where the teacher dseircbed Brahms as being like molasses, heavy and slow, Bach as being like a malt, not too heavy but filling, and Mozart as being like Sprite, light and bubbly. Maybe Vivaldi falls between Bach and Mozart?

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