Getting to the heart of Glenn Gould
Monday, October 2, 2017
Leading musicians explain why, 35 years after his death, Glenn Gould remains a musical icon. Interviews by James McCarthy and Martin Cullingford
The first time I became aware of Glenn Gould was in Moscow during his first tour in 1957. He was a sensation, of course, even though nobody knew him when he first arrived. His first concert was about half-full, but then the next one was sold out – and that was quite incredible. I also went to his performance for the students at the conservatoire. He presented us with Alban Berg and Schoenberg, music that was never played in Russia at that time because the Communist Party forbade it. And that was sensational because all of the students came and the directors of the conservatoire didn’t know what to do – they couldn’t stop him!
I met him on only one occasion. In the mid-1960s I played the Mozart Double Concerto with Malcolm Frager in Toronto. Glenn contacted us and said, ‘Why don’t we have lunch together?’ And so we did. Frager, Gould and I had lunch together for about an hour-and-a-half and he was extremely good company – very warm, very amusing; and it was really a great pleasure to talk to him. I’d heard about his concept of the ideal piano sound, about how he always wanted to find a piano that had a bass register which was very clear.
I said, ‘I know a piano-maker in Sweden who makes pianos just as you like them. If you would like, I’ll tell him about you and maybe he’ll get in touch with you to discuss it.’ He said that he would be very grateful for this. So, after about a year, I tracked down the piano-maker in Stockholm. So I sent a message to Gould saying that I’d finally found the piano-maker for him. He replied to say that he’d found a different piano anyway, but thanks very much – so my efforts were utterly useless! I would have loved to have helped him.
He was extremely intelligent. As for his gift, it was the gift of a genius. His recordings of Bach are incomparable. His great mental strength and absolute clarity of texture are unique. Having said that, I and many of my colleagues find the rest of his repertoire quite unconvincing and at times unacceptable. In my opinion this is often the peril of genius: the inability to appreciate and express the work of others on the same mental and spiritual elevation as oneself. But for his Bach we will be forever grateful.
In 1967 Gould wrote an article called ‘The Search for Petula Clark’ in which he rhapsodised about Clark’s pop songs – arguing that they were of greater artistic merit than those of The Beatles
Glenn wasn’t someone I was aware of in the 1950s and ’60s – I wasn’t really into that sort of music then. I only heard about this connection that I had with Glenn around the time that he died. I wasn’t aware of any of this – I don’t know what to call it – this ‘thing’ that he had about me. I thought it was absolutely bizarre, but flattering of course. I read what he had written and I listened to the programme he made about me. First, I thought that this might be a tongue-in-cheek thing, you know, but then I thought – no, this is really quite interesting. He was just really listening deeply to my music.
I have to say that it is a huge regret that I never met him. Sometimes I imagine what it might have been like if we had met, if we’d found ourselves in a room together. I’m sure I would have liked him. Maybe he’d have played the piano for me and I’d have sung – it would have been an amazing moment.
I have the highest regard for Glenn Gould. I first heard him when the first Goldberg Variations recording came out in the 1950s. That was the time of the Bach revival, and up to that time I had thought that Bach should be played on original instruments – that if you don’t play Bach on a harpsichord how can people possibly take you seriously? And along came this kid and my jaw dropped – I didn’t think anybody could play the piano like that, and I didn’t think anybody could play Bach like that. For me, just as I believe that Stravinsky is the greatest composer of the 20th century, Glenn Gould is the greatest performer in my estimation – he is a line in the sand.
Beyond that, I think Glenn Gould was the first classical musician to really understand recording. He was often castigated; I’ve seen reviews from years back, saying that he cheated, that he didn’t really play those things, that he pasted them together. And this kind of criticism is the most naive. It is as if someone was saying that the only kinds of photographs that are allowed are snapshots, that any of the great photographs we treasure are all phoney, cheating artefacts, which violate the rules of photography.
Some very well-known musicians I’ve read have this attitude that if it’s not a live recording it’s a lie, a fake – and again, that’s the idea that if it isn’t a snapshot it’s irrelevant. I think that’s a very naive view. A recording used to be a piece of plastic; now it’s a series of electrons, but it certainly isn’t a concert. A recording is an idealised version of a piece, and what’s more, when a musician makes a recording like that and then they go back to performing the piece live, they perform it better, they perform it more in line with the ideals that they had, so the recording process itself is almost the crash course in learning any given piece of music.
Glenn Gould wasn’t merely a technician – he used the technical realities of the age in which he lived, masterfully, to produce the most musical results possible. And they vary wildly. We have only to play the first and the second recordings of the Goldberg Variations to know that Glenn Gould was not interested in reproducing some kind of technical perfection.
When I was growing up, we had an LP at home of the concert that Gould gave for the students of the Moscow Conservatory in 1957, part of his legendary visit to Russia. I remember he played a few Bach pieces, but more importantly there was Berg’s Op 1 and also Webern’s Op 1 the Passacaglia for orchestra) arranged for piano. That LP was my first encounter with Gould. Later, in the early 1980s, I remember watching a film about the making of the second Goldberg Variations recording and it just went into my entire being like some kind of drug. When I was able to purchase the record, it became almost a daily exercise that I would listen to that recording. But I only got to know Glenn Gould, the man, later on, after I’d moved to the West, when I started reading his writings on music, which were absolutely revelatory.
He was a person of flesh and blood, and like every human being he had weaknesses. He was extremely opinionated about music, about the development of music, and about the course music took in the 20th century; his dislike of Stravinsky and his adoration of Schoenberg was, in my opinion, a very one-sided view. Also his – let’s call it ‘non-sentimental’ – approach to Beethoven and the early Romantics sometimes led to rather idiosyncratic performances, although these performances were always very interesting and sometimes revelatory, often enriching the meaning of the piece. For instance, listen to his recording of the Brahms First Piano Concerto. I don’t agree with what he did to it, but I think that you start hearing the piece from a different perspective and I think that was the main purpose of Gould’s existence in the musical world. He was very much a man of the new age – literally and figuratively speaking – and he broadened our consciousness.
I think the second recording of the Goldbergs is much more esoteric than the first. So it goes much further away from Bach’s intentions, but also, in a funny way, it approaches Bach from a completely new angle. The first recording is simply a very brilliant attempt to take Bach off the dusty shelf of the late-Romantic composers and to put him next to, let’s say, Schoenberg or Hindemith, and he does it with a youthful vigour and absolutely impeccable technique. Whereas in the later version I think he became much more interested in the sound itself and what the various combinations of sounds do to the listener. I think the second recording is made much more from the point of view of the potential listener rather than from the point of view of a performer. The first recording is very much a performance of Bach – it is absolutely honest, but in its honesty it is not flawless. The second one, with its complete autistic quality, is close to perfect.
I remember seeing the Humphrey Burton interviews with Gould on TV. I found him an extraordinary personality and he was incredibly combative in those interviews. He would bounce back at a question and refute it – almost to the point of suggesting that the person asking it was actually stupid, which I personally found quite enchanting.
Later, I came into possession of tapes of the three parts of the Solitude Trilogy. The Idea of North was much the most impressive of the three. It’s just extraordinary the way the dialogue between the voices happens. Obviously you become aware that this is entirely an artificial construct – these people never met. It was entirely done with razor blades and mixing, and he created this structure wholly from raw material, just like composing a piece of music. He spoke about the opening as being like a trio sonata, and the piece has contrapuntal elements, which he saw as being musical in structure and character. I found this a beautiful way of thinking about radio.
The ending of The Idea of North is a masterpiece. When I first heard it I assumed that Gould had simply fitted the words in the gaps between the final chords of Sibelius’s Fifth. But he hadn’t just done that. He had also adjusted the spacing of the chords by, maybe, a third of a second. It’s rather like Wittgenstein raising the ceiling of his room by a few centimetres because it wasn’t quite right. It’s that level of perception, that extraordinary knowledge of detail, that I most admire. I think that The Idea of North is a great work of art.
His own compositions are, I’m afraid, very disappointing. I always want them to be better than they are. I think he found his real creative outlet in radio, where he was an absolute master. His problem with composition was that he was too tied to theorising – he spent so much time being concerned with doing something ‘correctly’ that he got bogged down in it. It’s almost as if he feels like he has to be respectable and so his music comes across as incredibly conservative. I would have loved him to be a better composer – but it’s reassuring that there was something he couldn’t do very well!
I would rarely use the term ‘genius’ for anyone, but in Gould’s case I think I can.
These interviews originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe