Glenn Gould – Still Iconic After All These Years

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Every few years or so, there is a new eruption of Gouldiana, celebrating and recirculating the strange, visionary, and amazingly durable legacy of Glenn Gould.  The Canadian iconoclast would have been 80 on Sep. 25 – and oh, how he would have enjoyed today’s technology, with the Internet to hide behind and play with, tweeting endlessly to his heart’s and mind’s delight, making those wee-hours phone calls via Skype. Today’s advanced digital editing techniques would have given him even more control over his interpretations, with provisions for listeners to alter his performances however they wished.  He could even take a virtual trip to his beloved, but rarely visited (by him) frozen North via Google Earth – without the cold.

Yet one wonders if Gould’s legendary status – which continues to grow in the absence of much competition in the field of eccentric, brilliant musical thinkers – would loom so large if he was still around today.  He gave every indication of wanting to conduct and dropping the piano after the age of 50; in doing so, would he have become like Artie Shaw, the brilliant clarinetist who gave it up at age 44 to become a journeyman writer for the next 50 years? Would he have become so paranoid as to shut down completely like Sibelius, with decades of silence gradually eroding his stature as people began to forget about him?  Or how about the unthinkable – a return to the concert stage, which after the predictable initial hoopla about his “comeback” might diminish the mystery and aura of Glenn Gould: Concert Dropout, turning him into just other veteran pianist trodding the boards.  Actually, this is kind of fun, coming up with these scenarios – and I’m sure I’m not alone in doing this – and all it does is feed the legend of a unique talent done too soon some more.

Turning to some of this year’s round of Gouldiana, the endless parade of books about Gould is joined by an immensely interesting volume by my Toronto colleague Colin Eatock, “Remembering Glenn Gould: Twenty Interviews With People Who Knew Him” (Penumbra Press, paperback). In these talks with fellow musicians, handlers, critics, colleagues in other media, and his onetime lover Cornelia Foss, Eatock emerges with a bewilderingly fractured, often contradictory, always absorbing portrait of Gould, with nuggets of unfamiliar information and fascinating speculation. To cite only one example,  as related by Gould’s lawyer and executor Stephen Posen, neurologist  Frank Wilson made the suggestion that Gould’s physical disabilities – which he and psychiatrist/biographer Peter Ostwald diagnosed as focal dystonia – might have contributed to his outside-the-box choice of repertoire, favoring baroque and classical keyboard music while skipping right over the usual Romantic warhorses into the “moderns” like Schoenberg and Hindemith. Focal dystonia is what crippled the right hands of Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman – and if this is true, it’s hard to believe that Gould could have played anything, let alone his stupendous contrapuntal voicings in Bach fugues or extracts from Richard Strauss’s Elektra, without injections of Botox, which came along well after his death. So dig in, all you Gould fans; there’s plenty of material to savor here – and Eatock provides plenty of sometimes overlapping footnotes after each interview to keep you on track.

Meanwhile, in addition to recycling most of the Gould catalogue on CDs, Sony Classical has re-released the three films that director/interviewer Bruno Monsaingeon made of Gould playing and musing about J.S. Bach from 1979 to 1981.  These were put out on VHS and laserdisc in 1994 but this is their first appearance as a set on DVD, packaged together in a handsome, stark-white, 3-disc box, “Glenn Gould Plays Bach.” The first two films, “The Question Of Instrument” and “An Art of the Fugue”  are patented Gould scripted conversations with Monsaingeon – even the “argument” about Beethoven in the latter – while “The Goldberg Variations,” made simultaneously with Gould’s second audio recording, breaks format with an introduction, some brief comments by Gould, and the complete work.  Over the three films, you can see Glenn gradually aging beyond his years, his hair thinning, temples graying, wearing glasses, perched as always on that creaky, worn-out, homemade chair of his. But his intellect remains sharp and his playing as contrapuntally astounding and clear as ever with complete independence of fingers. Interestingly, in the first two films, Gould is still using Steinways but for the “Goldbergs” project, he switches to a somewhat aging, yet brilliantly brittle-sounding Yamaha with the fallboard removed. Although each DVD is less than an hour in length, and there are no bonus takes, the price is reasonable – about $27 on Amazon – and the documentary value of catching Gould in his last years is incalculable.

If any of the material in the Gould 80 crop could really be considered a memorial, it would be Gidon Kremer’s project “The Art Of Instrumentation: Homage to Glenn Gould” (Nonesuch), which pays its homage by commissioning various composers to write arrangements, paraphrases and fantasias based on Bach works that Gould played. The contributions ranges from the innocuous and reverent (Georgs Pelécis’s orchestration of the Aria from the “Goldbergs”) to lyrical and surprising (Carl Vine’s treatment of the Arioso from the Cembalo Concerto in F minor for solo violin and pizzicato strings) to Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer’s odd but not off-topic juxtaposition of Bach and Schoenberg in After Gould, to Giya Kancheli going his own mysterious, meditative, dynamically jolting way in Bridges To Bach.  Hard to say how the contradictory Gould might have reacted to this; the control freak in him might have objected, but the free-thinking iconoclast in him might have been intrigued and delighted.  In any case, Kremerata Baltica plays smoothly and fearlessly.

Finally, I’m wondering why Canada didn’t issue a Glenn Gould coin this year. The Royal Canadian Mint churns out a myriad of designs for coins on the most specialized subjects every year – too many, in fact – so why not one for Canada’s most important classical musician?