The Last Glenn Gould Records – Beethoven, Scarlatti, CPE Bach, Gould, Scriabin, Haydn, JS Bach, Brahms, Strauss

These weren’t the last recordings Gould planned; they weren’t meant as some sort of departing “testament” to the world.  Gould’s death, though predictable in hindsight, wasn’t something he had planned for or desired (at least not consciously).  These last seven recordings just happen to be the final ones he made before dying.

#56 – Beethoven Piano Sonatas – Nos. 1-3, 28 (“Pastoral”)

This is (for me) either Gould’s best or second-best solo piano Beethoven recording.  It’s a double album, comprising four sonatas, the most memorable of which is the last one – 28.  Gould must have taken a late interest in Beethoven’s “pastoral” work, because he also recorded Liszt’s transcription of the Pastoral Symphony’s first movement (see below).  The second movement here is the really attention-grabbing one – there is a recurrent melody that has a hypnotic effect, returning three times through its course.  Gould walks the line between being too precious with Beethoven and too cantankerous, and this recording gets the middle ground just right.

#57 – The Glenn Gould Silver Jubilee Album

This includes a whole cluster of albums, as I guess is customary for a classical recording artist to do to celebrate their landmark (here 25th) recording anniversaries?  There is a Scarlatti sonata, pieces by CPE Bach, Scriabin and Haydn, a pleasant recording of Liszt’s Beethoven 6th transcription, and also just the third published compositional attempt by Gould himself  (after his String Quartet and his cadenza for Beethoven’s first piano concerto) – “So You Want to Write a Fugue?”  This is a humorous but cleverly implemented fugue whose lyrics comment upon the fugal structure as they manipulate that very structure.  It’s a bit cheeky, but fun enough.

This recording also includes an hour-long radio parody interview – “A Glenn Gould Fantasy.”  Gould converses with a real-life hostess, but then several other critics whose voices he also records.  An overly academic German musicologist – Herr Professor Doctor Klopweizer, a pedantic British critic – Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, a stoner/hipster New York music critic and performance artist – Theodore Slutz – and a Hungarian Marxist music critic whose name I can’t recall, all rounded off by a beleaguered Scottish sound engineer trying to get the recording straight (and repeatedly screwing up).  There’s plenty of ham-it-up humor, but also, disguised in all of that, Gould’s Kierkegaardian take on his own musical agenda.  Both are rewarding.  This all ends with a mock-triumphant “heroic return” by Gould, as he performs on a sinking oil rig and we overhear a classical-radio announcer excitedly trying to describe the goings-on.

#58 – Haydn Sonatas 56, 68-62

Like Gould’s Mozart, this classical period recording isn’t as successful as many of his others, but this is better than his Mozart sonatas.  Gould manages to achieve an intimacy with the classical form here that always seems just pro forma on the five Mozart records.

#59 – JS Bach – Goldberg Variations (1982)

This is the piece whose recording launched Gould’s career, but here it’s done much differently.  For the most part, that difference is just that it’s slower.  But that simple adjective doesn’t do it justice.  The slowness allows an extraction of many, many more contrapuntal resonances, much more richness of texture, and much more pathos.  That said, some of the excitement of the original, which is much, much master at several points, is missing.  I enjoy both of the recordings for different reasons.  But, after listening to so many other recordings, I’ve come to think neither of these ranks among his best.  The Goldberg Variations are actually a strange collection of music that are sort of anomalous in Bach’s oeuvre, and apparently Gould spent a lot of time frustrated that this is what people knew him for.

#60 – Brahms – Ballades Op. 10 and Rhapsodies Op. 79

When I started this project, this record was the reason why.  I had it on CD and when I was in college, it spoke to me like few other musical recordings (classical or pop) I had ever heard.  That’s still true.  The B-Minor “Intermezzo” Ballad is a study in contrasts that is very literally mentally and physically arresting for me every time I hear it.  I will stop whatever else I’m doing and listen, especially to its softer middle section.  The final G Minor Rhapsody has a sense of world-historical German apocalyptic fervor, a reticulating matrix of sound that acquires a kind of three-dimensionality while it is also incredibly cathartic and personal.

#61 – Beethoven Sonatas 26 and 27

I don’t have too much more to say about Gould’s Beethoven solo recordings.  In spite of his immense reservations about Beethoven – he insisted he loathed the Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies (the most popular and enduring works) – he recorded a huge number of sonatas.  I might go back and try to listen to them in some sort of sequence to see if I can come to any overall conclusion, but I haven’t yet.

#62 – Richard Strauss Sonata Op. 5, Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3

The sonata sounds a lot like a piano version of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, modulated slightly for late-romantic tastes.  Or at least like Gould’s rendition of Liszt’s transcription of it.  There is a disconcerting angularity about this recording: moments of dissonance disturb the classical harmonic progressions that still dominate.  I read a comment Gould made ones saying that Strauss and Brahms somehow represented two poles of Romantic music.  I think Gould did a better job with Brahms, though that’s probably just my preference coming through.

Sadly, that’s all the music Gould ever recorded.  The circumstances surrounding his death are a bit puzzling.  Basically, he overdosed on a random collection of painkillers he had been more or less addicted to for several years.  He took whole handfuls of pills everyday, being a horrible hypochondriac who would often visit many doctors until he could get someone to prescribe him what he thought he needed.  In the end, the proximate cause was some sort of mild cold or infection, but his body was so heavily leveraged on all the medication that it couldn’t fight it off.

What makes it puzzling is that, at least according to his friends, he had just come into his own as a resolutely introverted musician who had plans to go back into some less solo work.  He wanted to conduct, and perhaps record the great symphonies and operas.  He thought he had another 30 years before him to pursue these ends, but that didn’t happen: he died at 50 with several recordings unfinished (a few of the above are actually posthumous releases).

I’ll wrap up this series with a few more overall-reactions-type entries.  Then I’ll have to find another project.

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