Thursday, July 17, 2014

Glenn Gould As A Composer Who Lost His Way: The Idea of North

If the idea that a performer who plays music written by someone else has a moral responsibility to try to present the music as the composer intended, if that had not been drilled into me from my first music lessons, it might have been different.  But it was and so whenever the topic comes up I cringe knowing that if I have to say it, I'm going to upset someone.   I'm not a fan of Glenn Gould's playing and his conducting is worse.  I have to agree with Gunther Schuller's assessment that his interpretation of Siegfried's Idyll  is, "Probably the most inept, amateurish, wrong-headed rendition of a major classic ever put to vinyl."  Not that I'm especially fond of the piece, I can't stand it and I don't think most of his piano recordings are that bad but some of them are serious distortions of the clearly marked intentions of the composer.  Which is sort of a musical mortal sin, for me.  

Don't get me wrong I don't despise Gould and I respect some of his work, just not his playing.  For me, Glenn Gould was a failed composer, a victim to his misused virtuosity at the piano, and his own highly disturbed personality.  That is shown, in part, by some of the music he obviously loved (if to death) but even more so by his non-musical pieces for radio.   Here's the most famous of those. Don't let the brief contrapuntal narrative passage at the beginning put you off.

The Idea of North

Which is heartbreaking in a way none of those involved could have known, due to global warming and the destruction of the environment and the way of life he described in it, something that seems to have been foreseen by some of those he interviewed to make it.   It is great radio of the kind that is seldom produced in the United States.  You have to have something like the CBC to get this kind of thing. We don't have that.


  1. As a quasi-musician who never took the strictures of "classical" training as seriously as I should have, I still have a soft spot for Gould's interpretations of Bach (or even for his interpretation of Liszt's piano transcription of Beethoven's Fifth), despite the complaints of those more learned in music than I, like you and Leonard Bernstein (I have that recording, too, complete with Lennie's disavowal of what Gould made him do.s).

    His idiosyncratic reading of the famous Bach Prelude No. 1, for example, still intrigues me. Then again, I was never as skilled but always as emotive, as unwilling to pay attention to what the composer left behind, as Gould was. Of course, Bach left arpeggios; you have to get to Beethoven to get timings (the dreaded metronome! Bane of the existence of many a lazy piano student!). My teacher despaired of my over the top reading of "Fur Elise." He was right, I was wrong; but I stuck to my interpretation anyway. Probably a good thing I stopped taking lessons when I did.

    Which is not to say I'm arguing with you, or even disagreeing with you. I have a soft spot in my heart (and probably my head) for Gould. But the idea that he is a failed composer is an interesting one.

    Me, I'm just a failed pianist. So I can afford to admire him. ;-)

  2. It can drive me nuts to hear someone of Gould's intelligence and spectacular musical abilities ruin a recording with his mannerisms and self-indulgence. Sometimes, when everything is right, he is wonderful, other times I'm tearing my hair out. While I've still got a lot of hair I'm not taking any chances. His Bach recordings aren't the worst of it. I don't like his Mozart of Beethoven recordings, but there are so many of those that he's not likely to do much damage to them. It's his recordings of more obscure works or works which his will probably be the first one someone hears that really make me cringe. His tempos are frequently the worst of it and it's not as if he couldn't take things at tempo, his technique - especially after he gave up live performance for studio recording, was able to play anything he chose to play. I think he was always a great musician trapped by his incredible self-indulgence and his truly awful emotional disabilities.

    His radio work is brilliant, he should have done more of it. He was scheduled to retire from playing when he died, suddenly. I think he would have had a great couple of decades away from the piano, if he didn't take the detour he was considering into conducting. That recording of Wagner is truly, truly awful.