A couple of years before the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould retired from the concert stage at 32, he was scheduled to rehearse Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with members of the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor George Szell. Out Gould came onto the stage — the musicians tuning up — and slowly a look of outraged incredulity appeared on the fastidious conductor’s face.
Right under him was his continuo-performing star maneuvering a little rug next to the piano, on top of which rug, methodically and intensely, the pianist began adjusting the four 3-inch screws attached to his sawed-down, short-legged, wooden folding chair, readjusting them to the height and angle that suited his exceptional performing posture — an almost on-the-floor, nose-on-the-keys slouch that has driven Victorian church-pew piano teachers into a state of total stupefaction.
Oblivious to the world but finally satisfied with the angle, Gould looked up to find that that most patriarchal of conductors, muttering indignantly, was storming off the stage, never to return in Gould’s presence. An assistant conductor took over for the rehearsal, as well as for the extraordinary concert performance which Szell himself attended — sitting in the audience — and after which he turned to a friend, saying: “That nut’s a genius.”
Since 1946 when he first publicly performed Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto at 14, Glenn Gould has been amazing audiences and critics. He has been called a musician of “divine guidance” and the greatest pianist since Busoni. He has also been called the Bobby Fischer of the piano and has been castigated for: (1) his unconventional performing mannerisms — loping onstage like a misplaced eland with unpressed tails, sometimes wearing gloves, playing almost at floor level, conducting, humming, singing, combating and cajoling and making love to his piano as if it were Lewis Carroll’s Snark (“I engage with the snark/Every night after dark/In a dreamy, delirious fight”); (2) his uncompromisingly imaginative choice of repertoire (William Byrd, Bach, Hindemith and Schoenberg instead of Chopin and Rachmaninoff… and more Rachmaninoff); (3) his obsessive search and preference for a light-actioned piano, meant to facilitate a musical approach that emphasizes clarity of definition and textures and a rarely equalled analytical subtlety and acuity (the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, oboist Heinz Holliger, and cellist Janos Starker seem to me to be Gould’s few peers in this regard) — as well as for certain startling but revelatory interpretations of “standards” like the Brahms First Piano Concerto. When Gould first performed this piece with Leonard Bernstein and the N.Y. Philharmonic, Bernstein actually got up before the audience to disassociate himself gently from Gould’s approach, which featured slow tempi and a profound structural design that, for the first time I can remember, truly revealed the work’s pent-up emotional rapture.
And, finally, Gould has been criticized for his supposedly eccentric and hermetic lifestyle (the pianist refuses to fly, likes taking trips by himself to the far north of Canada), for his bizarre get-up, e.g., wearing gloves, mittens, T-shirt, shirt, vest, sweater, coat and scarf in warm weather — and, to cap it all off, for his having retired, at the wizened age of 32, from any and all public concert recitals.
Gould’s retirement, in fact, has allowed him to make good his claim that the functions of concerts have now been taken over by electronic media — that it is the recording medium itself that allows for an unparalleled analytic clarity, immediacy, tactile proximity, and catholicity of repertoire. The “analytic dissection by microphone” enables Gould to present the music from a “strongly biased conceptual viewpoint,” just as it allows the music to emerge — as in unrepressed bodies and souls — with an untrammeled force and luminescence. As Gould’s performances demonstrate, structural clarification always releases new energy.
Since his retirement in 1964, Gould has continued to produce one extraordinary recording after another. (He’s made about 50 albums to date for Columbia Records, the latest of which is the Gamba Sonatas of Bach, on which he collaborates with cellist Leonard Rose.) And he has interspersed his unsurpassed Bach realizations with “first” recordings of Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden (accompanying the actor Claude Rains who reads Tennyson’s sentimental, drawing-room poem), the Liszt piano transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques, and, recently, an astonishingly beautiful piano transcription of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Gould composes as well. Examples include a string quartet Opus 1, written between 1953-55 and recorded by the Symphonia Quartet. It is a romantic composition showing Gould’s fin-de-siecle predilection for the works of Bruckner and Richard Strauss. He has also composed “So You Want to Write a Fugue” for vocal and string quartets, a brilliant, jocular piece which was recorded by the Julliard String Quartet for a plastic insert record in HiFi/Stereo Review some years ago.
In addition to his recording career, Gould has produced and made five programs of “contrapuntal radio” for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (using voices in trio sonata form and employing the sounds of a train and the sea as a basso continuo); participated in, and even played for, certain CBC television programs (a Beethoven bicentennial concert, for example); and has completed a program entitled The Age of Ecstasy: Music 1900-1910, while working on four films about music and technology for the French ORTF.
Gould also continues to write brilliant and provocative magazine articles and self-interviews on subjects like: the forger as hero of electronic culture, Artur Rubinstein, Petula Clark vs. the Beatles, the analytical importance of the “flip-side overlap” — the four-minute demarcation points at the ends of 78 rpm records — and of Beethoven as an exemplar of a composer whose “professional developmental skills” conflicted with an “amateur’s motivic bluntness.”
These articles are an extension of Gould’s dazzling and witty liner-note extravaganzas in which, like the 18th century Spectator and Tatler newssheets, the pianist advises and warns his listeners, informs us of the state of health of his piano, and analyzes (usually brilliantly), comments on, and theorizes about a wide range of musical matters. On his Lizst-Beethoven Fifth Symphony album, Gould prints four “reviews” of his Beethoven interpretation from Sir Humphrey Price-Davies of The Phonograph magazine, from Professor Dr. Karlheinz Heinkel of Munch’ner Muskilologische Gesellschaft, from S. F. Lemming (M.D.) of the North Dakota Psychiatrists Association, and finally from Zoltan Mostanyi of Rhapsodya, Journal of the All-Union Musical Workers of Budapest. Gould was awarded a Grammy last fall for his liner notes on Hindemith: Three Piano Sonatas.