This batch of Gould records (which includes recordings from 1973-1976) was less interesting, as a whole, than the previous batches, though there were some bright spots. I listened to most of them enough times to feel reasonably sure in my judgments (probably at least 5-10 times for each, with one notable exception).
#39 – Grieg and Bizet – I’ve liked the handful of Gould’s other romantic and post-romantic records (see my earlier looks at Brahms, Prokofiev and Scriabin, for example). But this one ended up feeling like a lot of banging at big chords, without a really subtle hand. The moments of drama ended up feeling overdone.
#40 – Bach, French Suites 1-4 – This and French Suites 5-6 (see below) are tied for the best recordings in this bunch – the suite as a genre has become much more interesting to me over the course of listening to Gould’s work. That said, my initial reaction to the French suites was that they were too cutesy. Earlier Gould recorded the six partitas, which are also suites, and later, he would record the six English suites. They’re all based in courtly dance music (each movement corresponds to a different dance style and place in the evening), but by Bach’s time, they were stylized beyond being actually dance-able. The main thing that makes the French Suites different is they lack the overture/sinfonia that the each English Suite and each partita begins with. This makes the French suites seem less complex and less distinct from one another. When a partita starts with a 6-minute or so overture, it sets the tone for the later dances. The French suites start right in with Allemande dance movements, which seem more similar to one another than each of the partitas’ overtures do. This creates an airier feeling, which at first made the music less engaging. Having listened to them so many more times now, though, I see that though they are airier, and less distinct from one another, they are also wonderful in their own way. Suites 1-3 are in minor keys – especially attention-grabbing are the suite-ending “gigues.” They’re really exciting, almost to the point of crossing the line into folk music in Gould’s renderings. You almost want to dance, which if you know me is saying a lot. There is also a memorable minuet in the 3rd suite that gets towards the sort of thing that happens in rock music a little.
#41 – Mozart Piano Sonatas Volume 4 – I’m still just totally unmoved by these recordings. I put them on, and they are pleasant enough to listen to, but I never really want to return to them. Nothing catches my ear at all.
#42 – Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 31, nos. 1, 2 and 3 – Among these is the “Tempest” sonata. Gould’s recording of its third movement is disconcerting and haunting… it starts to move towards atonality (maybe? still not really qualified to make statements like that I know). There is such a rapid shift between chromatically related chord sequences, you lose the sense of the sonata-allegro “home key.” And again, Gould delivers this in an understated, non-histrionic way, where it could be, in other hands, so much more romantic/overbearing.
#43 – Hindemith – Piano Sonatas – I don’t know very much about Hindemith. To me it’s neither fish nor fowl – being 20th century music, it’s got the usual undulations, chromaticism, setting aside of tonality, etc. But it still remains melodious in a way that Schoenberg does not. It’s hard to get a grasp on the music as a whole; it feels like a sequence of moments I can’t link together, sort of like why I don’t like watching basketball – when every moment is exciting, after a while, none of them are.
#44 – Wagner Transcriptions – “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fans will recognize one of these as the piece Larry David whistles and is accused of antisemitism over (and later has performed on the accuser’s lawn). They’re fine to listen to. The act of transcription itself de-romanticizes these pieces. It takes you from the overwhelming Wagner experience you might have if you’ve seen any of this stuff performed live (I haven’t) or listened to orchestral recordings of the same. On piano, it sounds more distant and tuneful, less totalizing.
#45 – Bach – French Suites 5 and 6, Overture in the French Style
See #40 above – these are great too. 5 and 6 are both major-keyed. The Overture is minor-keyed, which I seem to prefer in the Bach/Gould world. It begins with an overture and moves through 10 dance movements afterwards, and so, it’s more like the partitas (but longer than any of them I think). The overture has one of those signature Bach transitions from genteel air into counterpoint/fugue. The gigue is surprisingly subdued vis-a-vis the other suites, but the final “echo” is the intense wrap-up you want.
#46 – Bach – Sonatas for Viola de Gamba and Harpsichord –
Gould plays these on piano, not harpsichord. They’re less counterpoint-infused than other Bach, making them much more background-music friendly than a lot of the rest. I have this problem with Bach, which is that if I put it on in the background, it soon moves to the foreground of my consciousness, and I stop reading/paying attention to whatever else I was doing. That was less true of these readings – you might mistake it for Mozart or something I think…
#47 – Beethoven Bagatelles Op 33 and 126 –
Back to the Gould/Beethoven question. There is a touch of folk-music sensibility in a lot of these short pieces as well. Some are quite dramatic, while others are more ordinary. I didn’t read about what a “bagatelle” is, so I don’t quite know how to come at this record.
#48 – Mozart Piano Sonatas Volume 5 –
5th and final. It does include a Fantasia, which comes alive a bit more than the sonatas. Gould’s recordings of Mozart’s fantasias are the exception to the “Gould’s Mozart is boring” dictum.
#49 – Hindemith – Sonatas for Horn, Bass Tuba, Trumpet, Alto Horn and Trombone –
I really couldn’t suffer through these. I may just have something against brass-and-piano duet, but it felt like I was in a room next to a rehearsal space and I couldn’t turn it down. The flatulent brass sounds were continually off-putting without any sense of evoking anything in me. I didn’t even get through it once so this capsule is probably unfair.
Like I said, all in all not the most interesting series of recordings. If I were picking one thing to listen to here, it’d be the French Suites/Overture in the French Style. Then maybe the Beethoven Bagatelles and Sonatas. Definitely not the Hindemith.