Gould Recordings 16-26 – Bach, Beethoven, Beethoven/Liszt, Schoenberg

You could call these recordings Gould’s “later early period” maybe, running from 1962-1967.  I’ll try to stick to one paragraph per recording.  Once again, I was able to find everything on Spotify.  If you follow me there you can get all the playlists I made.  My favorite recording here is the Bach concerto #3; my favorite record (at least its liner notes – for reasons made clear below) is the Beethoven/Liszt transcription.  The numbers all refer to the Wikipedia article’s numbers (to which I have proudly made editorial additions).

#16 – Bach – Partita 3 in A Minor, 4 in D Major, Toccata in E Minor

I wrote before that I couldn’t understand the partitas.  Having listened to them many more times I have a more well-formed view.  Basically I can now attach a single adjective describing the mood of each (really just the mood of the start of each, but that’s progress, right?)  Partita #1 (B-flat Major): earnest.  Partita #2 (C Minor): sneaky.  Partita #5 (G Major): playful.  Partita #6 (E Minor): Gothic/melodramatic.  This record adds numbers 3 and 4.  Adjectives I’d pick for these?  Partita #3 (A Minor): exotic.  Partita #4 (D Major): stately.  The Toccata is more sprawling and improvisional-sounding.

#17 – Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, in 3 volumes

This is just a ton of music, and whereas the partitas just discussed all have a mood, I can’t say as I’ve found one to ascribe to each and every prelude/fugue pair  here.  There is 1 pair for each of the 12 semitones of the scale in both major and minor (C major, C Minor, C# major, C# minor, D Major… B major, B Minor), making a total of 24 pairs, 48 tracks in all.  I read a brief biography of Bach recently (by Malcolm Boyd), in which it said that the Well-Tempered Clavier was more of a compendium of different styles and subjects than a coherently conceived project Bach wrote from start to finish all at once.  Bach assembled them to demonstrate the desirability of the “well-tempered” tuning system (the details of which confuse me, but apparently it’s a non-trivial problem how to tune a piano, since every set of ratios you use compromise other ratios, and considering music may have been written for one but performed on another, etc).  In some ways listening to these makes me start to feel OCD-addled, since they’re so extensive and systematic.  Still, there are moments were the music jumps out at you for the clarity/articulation with which Gould presents it.

#18 – Bach – Inventions and Symphonias (also called 2- and 3-Part Inventions)

I can play three of these on the piano (sort of) – the C major, F major and A Minor 2-part inventions.  They were all maddening to learn (and definitely created micro-bursts of OCD-like experiences, where I’d just have to come in every time I saw the piano and see if I had successfully memorized a given part).  When I play them, it sounds like a struggle: things are uneven, phrasing barely happens, sometimes I just get derailed entirely.  The first time I listened to Gould’s version of the A minor 2-part invention, the one I struggled the most with learning, quite honestly it brought a tear to my eye, just the first beats were so arresting; I had to sit down, stop what I was doing and experience the moment.  What I struggle to play through probably in a minute and a half, he plays twice as fast as I could even attempt, coming in at 40 seconds.  And of course, it’s preternaturally even-handed and under control to the point where it can become lyrical.  The undulation from minor to major and back to minor again (with the controlled ritardando finish) is breathtaking.  The same can be said of both the B-minor pieces, though they feel a bit more technically than emotionally executed, they will really take you by surprise if you let them.

#19 – Beethoven – Sonatas Op. 10, #1, 2 and 3 (also numbered as Sonatas 5, 6 and 7)

The lyricism Gould brings out in Bach is much nearer to the surface in Beethoven, and so what I get from his Beethoven recordings is more like a clearer sort of counterpoint (since for Beethoven, unlike for Bach, it’s the counterpoint that’s hidden).  For Gould, the Beethoven lyricism, in some ways, gets restrained so then I hear the interaction between melodies and counter-melodies.  You can hear this especially in the 3rd movement of Sonata 6 – I’ve not compared this a great deal with other Beethoven recordings so I don’t know if that’s normal, or if that has to do with Gould’s preference for counterpoint.  One other thing I’ll say about Gould’s Beethoven sonata recordings I’ve started to notice: he has a way of bringing out a repeated theme, almost like how you might experience someone kneading a tense muscle in just the right place, to relax it – at first, you don’t realize how tense such a muscle is, but as it’s repeatedly returned to, you do.  You do not notice the theme’s thematic quality until the 3rd time you’ve heard it, but then it takes on a presence that colors the whole earlier part of the piece.  That’s a strained analogy but there you have it.

#20 – Schoeneberg- Piano Pieces, Op. 11, 19, 23, and 33; Suite, Op. 25; Songs, Op. 1 and 2 ; The Book of the Hanging Gardens

I’m not sure if all of this was on one record – actually, I’m sure it can’t have been, because it’s more than an hour of music.  It’s definitely noteworthy that the Schoeneberg’s Songs Op. 1 and 2 sound much more like Wagner or something, being chromatic and late-romantic but not atonal.  The piano pieces are much less tonally rooted, and again, start to sound impressionistic once I’ve gotten past the difficulty of the lack of melody.  I still don’t know enough about Schoenberg’s music to say anything about Gould’s interpretation of it.

#21 – Beethoven / Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

This is the last of Gould’s recordings of Beethoven piano concertos.  Though this is probably the most popular of the concertos, it was Gould’s least favorite.  I’ve come to understand that’s because it doesn’t feature the sort of texture and complexity Gould seems to have liked most in Beethoven.  It does have an obvious and military-triumphalist feel to it at times.  That said, the first time I listened to this recording, especially the hinge between movements 2 and 3 (they play continuously) I stopped and thought – that might be the most tender and vulnerable moment I have ever heard on a recording.  There’s another similar moment in Beethoven, right between the Fifth Symphony’s 3rd and 4th movements, and while this one is not quite as grand, in Gould’s hands, it sounds just like the most timid and shy genius still frightened to come out on stage and play, like some sort of crossing of the threshold between introversion and extroversion that really left me unable to think about anything else for the rest of the finale.

#22 – Beethoven / Piano Sonatas, Op. 13 “Pathétique” and 14, Nos. 1 and 2 (also known as Beethoven Sonatas 8, 9 and 10)

At least for number 8, I’ve listened many times to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording, and so that’s a favorite and it’s hard to get past the idea that Gould’s sounds wrong.  It’s less sonorous, quicker (I think), almost rushed at times.  Otherwise, I do not have much to say that I didn’t say above about the other Beethoven sonatas.

#23 – J. S. Bach / Clavier Concertos, Vol. 1: Nos. 3, 5, and 7

This was my favorite recording of this group.  Do not be deceived by the first few bars of No. 3 into thinking this is some sort of staid baroque piece of merely historical interest.  The best way to avoid this is – stop listening to the strings and focus entirely on the piano.  These aren’t really concertos in the 19th century sense, where the solo instrument and the orchestra trade off.  The piano continues the entire time; for this recording in particular, the timber of the piano has been captured so perfectly, it is reproduced with such articulation and clarity that you hear each and every note with a kind of precision that makes you wish every other recording sounded like that.  The music is so rapid, and so strict in tempo, you really marvel at its continuous flow.  There are some magical moments, where whole clusters of piano notes emerge unexpectedly and yet inevitably; there is an odd sense that the recording is being produced by a perfect computer-driven synthesizer, on the one hand, but then the most empathetic of human beings, on the other, and at the same time.  One of the great Bach signatures you hear over and over again (especially in #3) is this run-up to an octive, repeatedly reaching back to the tonic (if it were in the key of C major, something like C A-C B-C C’-C) where just a glimmer of perfection is felt as the melody reaches the octave and then again races away in an entirely different direction.  Gould brings out the brightness and excitement in each of these moments.  There is also a place in the 3rd movement of #5, where that sense of lyrical inevitability seems to have been wholly discovered by Gould himself within the matrix of baroque harmonics and structure, and the music halts imperceptibly, somehow like the piano becomes a human voice for just a second…

#24 – Schoenberg / Ode to Napoleon, with John Horton (narrator) and the Julliard Quartet; Fantasy for Violin and Piano, with Israel Baker

In the words of John Cusack’s High Fidelity record-store clerk, responding to his assistant’s inquiry about a record he wanted him to listen to: “don’t think I’ve quite digested that one yet.”  The “Ode to Napoleon” was another of those spoken-word piano-accompaniment combos that I had trouble taking seriously. The words are extremely didactic, in a way that spoken-word seems like it always is.

#25 – Morawetz/Fantasy in D; Anhalt/Fantasia; Hetu/Variations pour Piano

Again, as with all the less tonal stuff, it’s just so hard to get a hold of.  Each of these pieces is like 10-15 minutes long, and it works as background, but I don’t have any thoughts about it.  This keeps me from re-listening, and then I don’t get more thoughts, and then I have nothing to say here.  I don’t know anything about any of these composers either.

#26 – Beethoven-Liszt / Symphony No. 5

I thought this would be a good stopping-point; after this is when Gould started recording Mozart works for solo piano.  Also, this recording made me really glad I had started collecting records.  I bought it at a hipster-ish record store in Lincoln Square – Brooke made the actual discovery (places like this are good for finding classical records, since that section of the store is such an afterthought).  While riding home on the el I read the back cover.  It took me a second to figure out what was going on.

First of all – the packaging is in this pretentious fluorescent color and silhouette style (there are silhouettes of Gould, Beethoven and Liszt).  It says “A Recording First!  Glenn Gould plays Beethoven’s 5th Symphony Transcribed for Piano by Franz Liszt”  On the back there are blurbs from several critics:

Reprinted from the British magazine The Phonograph – Letter from America – Sir Humphrey Price-Davies

Reprinted from Munch’ner Muskiologische Gesellschaft – Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Heinkel…

It was at this point that I realized, of course, that the entire package is a parody of classical record packaging (and criticism) as conceived of by Gould.

The other “critics” include a piece from Insight – Digest of the North Dakota Psychiatrists Association by S.F. Lemming (M.D.), and from Rhapsodya – Journal of the All-Union Musical Workers of Budapest by one Zoltan Mostanyi.

You get the feeling that each of these are characters Gould had developed in his head, perhaps even in whose voices he had written many parody reviews to be discovered among his personal papers.

Just a few samples – from “Humphrey Price-Davies” – “Mr. Gould has been absent from British platforms these past few years and if this new CBS release is indicative of his current musical predilections, perhaps it is just as well.”

From “Dr. Karlheinz Heinkel” – “It is not notable that in his poetic-cycle ‘Resonance-on-Rhine’ (Resonanz-am-Rhein) Klopweisser’s second stanza concludes the thought:  ‘…Upon that tintinnabulating* key” (* ringen, kligen)  from ‘The Collected Klopweisser’ (Dent and Dent).”

And so on.  These parodies reminded me quite a bit of Wes Anderson films’ bits of parody (especially the Royal Tenenbaums – think of the book covers and authors, and Ethyl’s quickly enumerated list of suitors near the beginning).  These parodies also reminded me of something I often hate about people’s writing about music – they avoid the music entirely.  All of Gould’s pseudo-reviews share the same big joke – that the authors write about themselves, barely even deigning to mention what they’re reviewing.

So what did I think of the Beethoven-Liszt transcription?  First of all – the Fifth Symphony, as played by an actual orchestra is one of the most famous and uncontroversially one of the best pieces of classical music ever written.  Of course everyone knows the first few bars from somewhere – duh-duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-duh-DUH, etc.  Until recently I really hadn’t listened beyond that, but my goodness, this is not light stuff by any means.  It’s also perfectly orchestrated.  I’ve got a Leonard Bernstein recording from the 50’s that captures the excitement, anguish, hopelessness, humor, and exultant joy of the final movement in all its glory.

Gould’s version captures some of that.  My favorite part of his recording was the second movement – I think it works best on piano since it’s not so multifaceted (at least in terms of notes that have to be played at the same time).  He plays it much more slowly that Bernstein’s orchestral version, and it lets the “theme-and-variations” structure come forward much more clearly, and plays to the piano’s strengths.  What I liked least were the moments when Gould tries to make the piano sound like an entire orchestral string section by playing clang-y octaves in the lower registers.  This is especially apparent in the first and last movements.  Not that there’s much different that could have been done – if you’ve set out to play a transcription of a dynamically rich and textured symphony on just a piano, how else could it be?

The liner notes on the back end with a simple claim: “Reprints compiled by Glenn Gould.”  I guess this puts Gould into Kierkegaardian territory, which hardly seems like a coincidence, though Gould is a bit funnier.

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