Archive for the 'adult' Category

Parallel Lives IV: Glenn Gould

The rise of a prodigy
Glenn Gould was born in Toronto in 1932 and died there shortly after his fiftieth birthday of a heart attack. He was a considerable child prodigy, and had a big native reputation by his middle teens. He began a career as a travelling virtuoso, but abandoned it for a life of reclusiveness and recordings in 1964, when he was only 31. His mannerisms on the stage during his brief international career were notorious. A dedicated lifelong hypochondriac, he wore an overcoat on the stage under most circumstances, and mittens. He sat at an incredibly low stool, so that his head was just about on a level with the keyboard; and he always had a glass of water on the piano, from which he frequently sipped. Most vexingly, for the home listener, he was an incorrigible hummer-cum-singer, so that, despite his recording engineers’ best efforts, nearly all his records are enhanced or disfigured, according to taste, by quite noisy vocalising, bearing no recognisable relation to the music being played.

Why the cult?
He is perhaps the object of a more intense cult than any other post-war musician. Certainly he assiduously exploited all those parts of his personality and talents which were most likely to lead to frenzied discipleship. There is even a novel by the great American writer Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, about a character who commits suicide because he can’t play as well as Glenn, whom he refers to with intimate reverence.

Reputation verdict
Gould had a passion for contrapuntal music, above all that of Bach, and a phenomenal capacity to make each voice sound separately so that his fingers seem wholly independent of one another. His most famous recording is of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1955. He re-recorded it in 1981, and there are several live performances available too. They command fanatical devotion or revulsion; certainly they are highly interesting, whatever else. He loathed Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and fortunately didn’t play them apart from Mozart, in a way calculated to spread his dislike. He was keen on some difficult modern music, and his Schoenberg and Hindemith are well worth listening to. He often ignored completely directions as to volume and tempo, and there is a famous concert (privately recorded) in which he plays Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, preceded by the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, dissociating himself from the pianist’s chosen speeds. It is hard to know how wilful he was, and how much was genuine eccentricity. Whatever the proportions, I find him, except in Bach and some modern music, too unpredictable and often perverse to listen to.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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