Gould’s frequent protestations in interviews notwithstanding, he really was a Bach specialist, so far as I can tell. It’s strange that when asked about his favorite composer, he usually answered Orlando Gibbon, of whose music he recorded something like 12-20 minutes. There are hours upon hours of Bach. And if you want to put in the time, just about all of those hours are incredible – I usually go from confusion towards obsessive attempts to memorize the different melodies by number (as in, “how does Partita #2 start? oh yeah, I remember…”) and then can move to a more holistic reaction many listens later. But almost always there’s something extremely engrossing about Gould’s Bach recordings. The short version of this post is – Bach good, other stuff, not so much.
#50 – Bach – Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord Gould plays these on a piano – the only actual harpsichord recording is the Handel suites, which I reviewed before (the short version is – they’re really good, especially #3, and within that, especially the air, variations and the final gigue). This recording here is more background-ish, less complexly counterpointed. That may only be my impression because I haven’t really delved into it. With the duet nature of the work, though, the piano ends up sounding more like accompaniment than like something uniquely captivating.
#51 – Bach – English Suites As every note I’ve ever read about the English and French suites begins, it points out that these weren’t Bach’s titles. Someone added them later. Gould recorded 19 Bach keyboard suites, generally known as the 6 partitas, the 6 French suites, the 6 English suites, and the “Overture in the French Style” (which is a suite, led by an overture). My overall sense of them is as follows: The six English Suites – Extremely technically demanding; more technical than melodious. This isn’t bad per se. There are whole sections of especially the first movements of each of these suites, that are these amazing tapestries of complexity. At first they sound like just notes pouring down in a torrent, not unlike (to invoke my recent reading experience) pages of Finnegans Wake. It starts to sound as though there are three, four threads running at once that you can only momentarily grasp. The A-B-A dance movements towards the end of the suites are also catchy at times. The overall impression, though, is one of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. The six French Suites – Less technically demanding, more genteel. Basically the opposite of what I just said about the English suites. These are captivating in an entirely opposed way – simple (though haunting) melodies woven rather minimally (at least as compared to the other suites). They lack overtures, which may account for the sense of reduced complexity. They’re more conventional suites, closer to the original dance forms Bach is imitating (though still abstracted from them in some sense). The “Overture in the French Style” also belongs here. The six Partitas (also sometimes called the “German suites” I think?) – combine the technical demands of the English suites with the melodious/emotional impact of the French. These recordings of Gould’s are also the richest. They do contain overtures (like the English suites) as well which function as controlling “first movements” over the rest of the suites. You can sort of hear the structure of the classical symphony here – complicated sonata-form first movement, slow next movement (the Sarabande), then an accelerated penultimate movement (in A-B-A) structure, followed by a quick and playful finale (the gigue). Each of the partitas has its own sense of that, with a different dominating mood, as I’ve said before.
#52 – Sibelius – Sonatinas, Kylliki, Three Lyric Pieces I think this is Gould’s lone foray into the Finnish late romantic composer. There’s s spareness and intimacy Gould manages to wend into these recordings – though also an airiness you wouldn’t really get from analogous recordings from other artists (like his two Brahms records, which, whatever their other merits, are not “light” in any sense of the word). As with other late-romantic sort of things though, sometimes it’s just atmosphere, there’s nothing to really listen for.
#53 – Hindemith – Das Marienleben I still don’t really get Hindemith. But, these songs were somehow more substantial-feeling than the early brass/piano sonatas. I don’t understand the lyrics (being in German) but it seemed to go somewhere in a way the others didn’t.
#54 – Bach – 7 Toccatas This is a really curious collection. A Toccata is a less structured, longer-form composition, something that ends up feeling more like a classical sonata a la Beethoven or Mozart than like Bach’s suites, with three or four moments, reaching the 15-20 minute mark. In contrast to those, though, there is a continual motive force that runs throughout the pieces (no “movements”), especially as Gould plays them. I’ve noticed in listening to Gould recordings vs. some live Bach performances I’ve seen recently, that Gould tends to treat the whole of a composition as a more continuous singularity. There are fewer pauses, and more seamless transitions, for Gould. This is most noticeable in the first toccata here (in D Major). This complex piece has several sections, but, for me anyway, is strikingly and powerfully wrapped together by its final major-key melody. While listening to it most recently I was reminded of great movies I have liked that has powerful and seemingly incongruous endings, but that really draw the whole together – sort of like the Life Aquatic. Somehow sitting through it all makes sense when you see the last 3 minutes. Same here. Another notable one is the last – in E Minor – this was released earlier by Gould, along with Partitas 3 and 4. This is dramatic throughout (though fast and slow alternatively) and its finale is riveting and frantic.
#55 – Bach – Preludes, Fughettas and Fugues These are all shorter and more miscellaneous pieces, without a common thread to unite one’s listening around. But they are mostly vigorous, bright and technically impressive. I fear I haven’t given them the requisite listening to really say more.
[Sadly there’s only really one more cluster of records to review (running up through his death in 1983 and some posthumous recordings), and then I’ll write some wrap-up “top 5” sort of posts.]