Glenn Gould would have been 90 on Sept. 25 — and why do we still care so much about him since his death in 1982? If he was merely an extraordinarily gifted pianist, I don’t think that alone would have been enough to fuel a cult. If he was merely notable for quitting the concert stage at the age of 31 at the peak of his fame, that notoriety would have faded in time. I think it is because Gould basically created his own idiosyncratic, non-conforming, often visionary universe, which has only increased in fascination over the decades. (Frank Zappa did the same thing in his own idiosyncratic way.)
He had to express himself in many ways — as a television personality, an original thinker, a documentarian, a producer of radio programs, a prolific writer of provocative articles and liner notes, a transcriber and infrequent composer, and ultimately, just before he ran out of time, as a conductor. And even after taking on these additional masks, he continued to play the piano brilliantly but only for the microphone, leaving an ample library of music for Columbia Masterworks that Sony has been packaging and repackaging endlessly.
Everything about Gould the pianist was unusual and offbeat. The ritual of soaking hands in scalding water before playing. The rickety piano chair he carried everywhere. (I saw the chair at a traveling Gould exhibit in Vancouver, British Columbia; it must have been torture for the rump.) The low-slung seating at the keyboard and vocal obbligatos that leaked into the microphones. The revolving motions of his upper torso as he played. The repertoire that went from William Byrd to Beethoven and then took a huge leap over most of the usual Romantic suspects into the 20th century.
Gould’s most notorious prediction — that concerts were obsolete and recordings would take over as the principal delivery system for music — proved to be wrong in the long run, with recording sales tanking and concert tickets snapped up even at ever-higher prices in the 21st century. But there was that period during the pandemic shutdown when Gould’s prophecy became a lifeline for music’s survival. And oh, how he would have loved the internet, where he could post, tweet, pontificate, prognosticate, create, perform, and clown through the wee hours.
Some may find this list woefully short on piano recordings, which filled 70 discs in Sony’s Glenn Gould Edition from the 1990s. But I chose to break away from his keyboard legacy midway through to give you an idea of the vast range of Gould’s interests, talents, intellectual pursuits, and streaks of fun and whimsy. Again, he was more than just a pianist.
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations — 1955 and 1981 versions (Sony)
If we limit ourselves to one item from Gould’s comprehensive collection of Bach recordings, let’s go with the most obvious choice (you knew I couldn’t come up with a list without it). These famous recordings — the first revolutionary one being fleet, exhilarating, and astoundingly clear in texture; the second more measured and reflective but not by much over the long haul — bracket almost his entire career, and they’ve always been available in one form or another. The most desirable package — and also a bargain — is the three-CD set A State of Wonder, which contains both versions, plus a scripted dialogue between Gould and music critic Tim Page and a handful of outtakes from the 1955 sessions. There are two massive boxed sets that contain all the takes from both Goldbergs, but that’s for real hard core Gouldians only.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, with Bernstein speech — New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, conductor (Sony)
This is it — an air check of the much-debated, frankly over-hyped April 1962 concert in which Leonard Bernstein, in a preperformance talk, publicly disassociated himself with Gould’s conception of the Brahms concerto. Lenny is respectful of Gould’s stature as an artist, but he does get in some humorous jabs while adding that he agreed to go ahead with the performance “in the spirit of adventure.” Actually, the performance, while quite slow — especially the first movement — does not sound like that much of an outlier (there are a number of recordings of that era and ours which approach the total timing of this one — Claudio Arrau/Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim/Gustavo Dudamel, to name a couple). Also, the disc includes Gould’s comments on the radio in February 1963, in which he lightly makes sport of the whole episode. He quit playing in public a year later.
Always the contrarian, Gould continued to champion the music of Paul Hindemith in the 1960s and ’70s, well after it had lost favor as old hat in the serial world. Yet it’s easy to see why Gould would take to this composer, for these piano sonatas have an objective solidity, vigor and strength, forward drive, touches of humor, and enough Bach-inspired counterpoint to interest a pianist who thrived on illuminating that kind of detail. And he would go on to record more Hindemith rarities like the five sonatas for brass and piano and the song cycle Das Marienleben.
Prokofiev: Sonata No. 7 (Sony)
Here’s a dynamic performance of a World War II-period masterwork that is worth seeking out, buried as it usually is in collections of material (Scriabin, Chopin, Mendelssohn) not often associated with Gould. In his liner notes to the original LP, Gould puckishly describes the frantic Precipitato finale as “one of those ‘just as our lines are beginning to crumble comes another column of our impregnable tanks even if they do happen to be Shermans and to have arrived lend-lease at Murmansk last week’ toccatas.” He certainly plays it like that — with total control and fearlessness.
Gould promised that he was going to stop playing the piano when he turned 50 and concentrate upon conducting. He just barely made a start with this Siegfried Idyll, his first and only official audio recording as a conductor (there are some much earlier attempts preserved on video), completed just a month before his death. Leading 13 members of the Toronto Symphony, Gould’s tempos are often oh-so-slow, but there is a warmth and poignancy about this performance, especially the drawn-out coda, that fits the piece. Among the piano transcriptions on the recording (recorded nine years earlier) is the one Gould made himself of the Siegfried Idyll, almost as slow and a lot more wayward; the chamber orchestra version flows and holds together better.
Released in 1980, 25 years after his American debut, this is a delightfully eccentric compilation as only Gould could have hatched it. The first disc contains unfinished projects and rarities like the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in Liszt’s piano version, a session with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and a zany Gould vocal composition, So You Want to Write A Fugue? The second disc is A Glenn Gould Fantasy, a nearly hour-long, weirdly funny, interview/radio play in which four of Gould’s characters (British conductor Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Klopweisser, producer Duncan Haig-Guinness, and Brando-voiced New York fine arts editor Theodore Slutz) take part. Eventually, in a parody of Vladimir Horowitz’s returns to the stage, Gould is heard playing an imaginary “comeback” concert on an oil-drilling platform somewhere in the frozen Beaufort Sea.
Glenn Gould: The Radio Artist (CBC Records)
Some of Gould’s most idiosyncratic contributions to our understanding of what a unique character he was are his full-length radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Gould thought of his radio projects in terms of musical compositions, with voices overlapping and competing simultaneously in what he called “contrapuntal radio.” The Solitude Trilogy is here, including the breakthrough piece The Idea of North, followed by The Latecomers, and The Quiet in the Land. The set also includes a couple of audio profiles of legendary musicians in extreme old age, Casals: A Portrait for Radio and Stokowski: A Portrait for Radio, the latter in which the 88-year-old conductor emerges as a cosmic visionary. If there is a connecting theme linking all five programs, it is “the cost of nonconformity” — which Gould was certainly aware of. And with so many multimedia productions having several things going on at once nowadays, these shows pointed the way — ironically in a vintage medium.
Passages from Gould’s extensive television projects for the CBC were previously chopped up and scattered almost randomly among a dozen Sony VHS tapes or six laserdiscs, in 1992, his 60th birthday year. But for his 80th, Sony made amends by restoring all the programs and existing fragments to their original uncut state on ten DVDs. There are more than 19 hours of endlessly absorbing material here — concerts, lectures, conversations, interviews, video projects, the hilarious commercials for CBC Radio. Gould never underestimates the intelligence of his invisible audience, and sometimes his talks and analyses are so dense and rich with ideas that it is best to absorb them in small doses. A couple of choice moments: Glenn excuses the peculiar, prepared sound of his piano in a Bach program with the aside, “This is a neurotic piano; it thinks it’s a harpsichord.” The young music director of the Montreal Symphony, Zubin Mehta, upon hearing Gould’s rationale for giving up concerts and concentrating on recordings, responds, “I think he’s out of his mind!”
The Glenn Gould Reader (Vintage Books)
In this packed volume lay many of Gould’s writings — liner notes for his albums and others’; articles for magazines, newspapers, and journals; reviews real and imaginary; think pieces; interviews; self-interviews — all kinds of musings that poured out of him over a lifetime. The alternately entertaining, querulous, eloquent, whimsical Gould style is present throughout the book, sometimes taxing the reader with its long-winded vigor. It’s hard to choose favorites among the 68 entries, but one piece I keep gravitating to over several years is Gould’s unlikely fascination — and perhaps infatuation — with the British pop singer Petula Clark, then in the middle of her lucrative run through the 1960s pop charts. That he finds trenchant philosophy and “a document of despair” in a song like “Who Am I?” (a great pop record, by the way) while also slagging the Beatles as having “as little regard for the niceties of voice leading as Erik Satie” puts a big, bemused smile on my face every time.