Top Five Glenn Gould Records That Aren’t Bach



Glenn Gould is best known as a Bach keyboard music specialist, and despite his protests to the contrary, that’s clearly his oeuvre’s biggest strength.  Nonetheless, Gould did record a bunch of other things, and many of them have given me a lot of listening and re-listening pleasure.  So here goes a Desert-Island-Top-5 type list.  I’ll post a Top 5 Gould Bach Records sometime soon.

[The links below are youtube videos of the first track (or a notable other track) on the record.  I’ve been enjoying these on Spotify (they’re all available there) and also on record at home.  I’ll write a post sometime later about my budding Glenn Gould record collection – I own about 2/3 of the 60+ records so far.]

(1) Brahms – Ballades Op. 10 and Rhapsodies Op. 79.  I’ve written about this record twice before (first time, second time).  It’s still my favorite classical recording ever.  When I first got to know it, I didn’t know it was one of the last Gould ever recorded.  Reading a bit on the internet reveals that Gould played these after only 2 weeks of experience with them (if we take him at his word, which there’s no reason not to, given his generally controlling and anti-rough-cut nature).  That may explain the improvisational quality I experience with several tracks.  They’re a bit fresher, and there’s lots of the signature Gould background singing.  Not everyone’s cup of tea but I’ve always enjoyed it on this record.

(2)  Beethoven Piano Concertos.  Okay, (2) is cheating, because it it really five records, not one.  Even so – these five records are probably the ones I’ve come back to the most – over and over again in the last year or so since I started listening to this stuff seriously.  Each one of them is good for a different reasons.  You really need to listen to them a bunch of times before their differences come into focus – it’s so so easy to just hear this as a bunch of samey stuff. but it’s really not.  I’ve probably listened to each on order of 30-40 times.

Concerto #2 in B-Flat Major [link isn’t to the record version] This is really the first one Beethoven wrote; I’m not sure why they’re numbered out of order.  It sounds polite and Mozart-like for the most part.  Gould’s handling of it comes out most towards the end of the outer movements, were Gould’s virtuosity emerges most strikingly.  In his liner notes, Gould calls it the most “unjustly maligned” of Beethoven’s concertos.  Which is, in Gould-ese, a sort of compliment, especially where Beethoven is concerned.

Concerto #1 in C Major (again, really the second one), which Gould calls more “pretentious” than #2 in his liner notes, is actually a richer piece, to my hearing anyhow.  Gould also wrote his own cadenza to the first movement, which now means when I hear other performances or recordings, they sound wrong, since they lack Gould’s cadenza.

Concerto #3 in C Minor (which imitates Mozart’s C-Minor concerto – see below) is the “darkest” – and every time I listen to the end of the first movement Gould’s take on the cadenza is just as striking, stormy and intense.

Concerto #4 in G Major was Gould’s favorite composition of the set, because it exhibits what he calls “melodic compression.”  My understanding of what that means is that it has a sense (more like Bach) of continuity, less a sense of discrete parts, and rather than being definitely in a major or a minor key, it undulates more the entire time, as does its mood.  This is also the most “programmatic” – it’s often labelled the “Orpheus” concerto, because its middle movement is said to emulate Orpheus taming the underworld with his song (I think that’s a critic’s interpretation, not Beethoven’s stated intention).

Concerto #5 in E-Flat Major was actually Gould’s least favorite, and he cancelled several concerts when he was to perform it.  It is the most extroverted and celebratory of the set, two qualities Gould did not like.  Still, when listening to the second (quieter, slower) movement, Gould’s performance is quite powerful – this movement actually puts every schmaltzy movie soundtrack to shame in outdoing them while somehow being non-schmaltzy – and Gould’s transition from the second to the third movement perfectly captures – for me anyway – the power behind shyness and reserve.  The first time I heard that recording, I was literally overwhelmed by its tentativeness; I had to stop doing what I was doing, just for the few seconds between, as the immense sadness of the second movement flows into the coronation of the third.

(3) Prokofiev / Sonata No. 7 (link is to 3rd movement – the finale); Scriabin / Sonata No. 3  – There is a power in the jazz-like chord progressions and play with discordance here – one that’s not atonal by any means but also not straightforward either, as well a strong impression of technical achievement (especially in the final movement of the Prokofiev).  In addition to being engaging and intense as a listening experience, this record is also pretty sui generis when it comes to comparing it with other Gould records.

(4) A Consort of Musicke Bye William Byrde and Orlando Gibbons – If you’re like me, you’ll find this recording as haunting and minimalist as hearing What Child Is This? sung a capella at a midnight Christmas Eve service.  Here you can hear what it meant to play with tonality from before the baroque-classical-romantic sequence, where key oscillations and “sonata form” became much more regulated.  I found myself wishing Gould hard recorded much more music from this era, especially since he was fond of saying that Orlando Gibbons was his favorite composer.  This is not a technically demanding set of music; its power is in its subtlety and unexpectedness.

(5)  Mozart / Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor; Schoenberg / Piano Concerto, Op. 42 – It’s a critical commonplace that Gould’s Mozart recordings are among his weakest, and I don’t disagree, except for this concerto.  It sounds a lot like Beethoven’s 3rd concerto (both in C minor – of course Mozart came first, and influenced Beethoven).  Its third movement is variations on a theme that even brought Gould to say something nice about Mozart – “it is the last movement which holds the Mozart of our dreams” – and he was most definitely NOT a fan.

The Schoenberg concerto makes for an extremely unlikely juxtaposition with the Mozart.  It’s haunting, all over the place, atonal, but after some getting used to, really quite listenable.

This juxtaposition is the sort of thing that was probably more likely to happen in the LP era than our present playlist-driven one: an artist would choose to record two different things so you could hear comparisons and contrasts.  The liner notes allege some similarities I’m really not in a position to hear; they also suggest that the juxtaposition somehow proves the death of the concerto in the contemporary era – something Gould thought was good, since he claimed to hate them.  It’s ironic, then, that two of my top 5 are, in fact, concerto records.  I think the fact that Gould was so suspicious of the soloist’s desire to show off actually helped him to temper the competition between orchestra and solo, creating a synthetic, anti-competitive effect other artists’ recordings don’t create.

[Honorable mention – #6 would be the Handel harpsichord suites, especially #3, within in the variations towards the end – listen to these a few times and see if it changes your opinion of the baroque as stuffy and boring.  This is the only recording Gould made on harpsichord].

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