Glenn Gould would be 84 on September 25, had he not died in 1982 at the age of 50. We all expected he would still be with us.
He had the fastest left hand in the business. In 1955, he recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations. To the surprise of the recording industry pundits, it sold like hot cakes. Hearing him for the first time was like watching someone dance the tarantella on a very high wire with no safety net. He blew us away with his virtuosity, such that the album was often the sole classical disk in many an undergraduate’s collection. He squeezed the last drop of sound out the slower passages, and then ripped off the fast variations with such crystalline clarity as to induce aural whiplash. You didn’t have to know the piano, Bach, or the Goldbergs to be absolutely blown away — particularly if you were one of the nerdy intellectuals on campus who Mike Nichols and Elaine May pilloried in their improvisational skit “Bach to Bach.”
I was in the Halifax Press Club in 1982 when CBC interrupted regular programing announce his death and air the film of his second version of the Goldberg Variations, nearly 30 years after he had blazed his way into unexpected success. Version two was more reflective, less pyrotechnic. He could still amaze with clarity and precision, but many of the slower sections are drawn out so fine that anyone who knows the music is on tenterhooks for the next note. In the film, when he reached end of the reprise that closes out the work, he held his fingers on the keyboard until long after the last reverb, then brought his palms together like Albrech Dürer’s praying hands. The media people in the club gave him the accolade of several seconds of silence, and then someone switched channels to the hockey game.
He was über-eccentric. When he was playing with his chair 14 inches above the floor, humming fragments of an extra part Bach never wrote, he vaguely resembled a Muppet Puppet. I remember seeing him one summer day near the University of Toronto campus, wearing a long dark coat, woolen gloves, a taxi-driver’s cap and a thick scarf. When I stared, a friend told me, “That’s not a bag lady, it’s Glenn Gould.”
Gould preferred the recording studio to the stage. He gave up concertizing when he was 30, abjuring the emotion-laden interpersonal dynamics of performance in public in favour of creating the perfect reading by splicing the best of take after take. Musical conservatives considered this a heresy, to faithful fans, it was revelation.
Gould was acknowledged a genius by luminaries such as Georg Szell and Yehudi Menhuin. However, many of his performances were uneven. His Brahms First Piano Concerto was a contest between piano and orchestra in which there are ecstatic moments of cooperation when the music emerges phrase by phrase, the piano and orchestra discovering the essence of the work as if for the very first time, and there are muddy, confused patches when the piano and the orchestra are merely playing simultaneously. He introduced just about everyone to William Byrd with his lucid performance of the variations called Sellinger’s Round. His Mozart sonatas are, well, unexceptional. His collaboration with Elisabeth Schwartzkopf was a disaster. His own faux liner notes on his performances are all heavily comic and negative. His experimental work for radio, The Idea of North, requires the listener to attend to several different voices talking simultaneously. With earphones on, this contrapuntal effect becomes almost intelligible, rather like listening to several conversations at the same time. It is like much of his music: arresting, disturbing, confounding.
The Toronto intellectual establishment, led by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation canonized Gould. When the CBC opened a new purpose-built building in Toronto, they gave his name to a studio that, ironically, considering his preference for recording, is a small concert hall.
In the bookends of his career, the first and last versions of Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Gould gave us a fresh insight into Bach’s music that is brilliant, analytic, intellectual. But in the end, Gould’s humming is the only live, human element. It’s a bit like those creepy exhibits of plasticized corpses. Ironically, at the same time as Gould was bleeding the humanity out of Bach, straining emotion out of the music through a technological sieve, Wendy Carlos was using a computer to make her Switched On Bach recordings that are as vibrantly alive as a concert-hall performance. In my opinion, you should fast forward to another Canadian, Angela Hewitt if you want to hear the life, laughter and joy in Bach’s music.
Gould cannot be disregarded, but as the years go by, he is increasingly as dated as the Age of Aquarius in which he emerged as Canada’s off-beat musical genius.