BRILLIANT CONCERTIZING FROM A RECLUSIVE VIRTUOSO
by Stephen Cera
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal on September 12, 1986.
“The concert is dead,” Glenn Gould said 20 years ago.
The brilliant Canadian pianist, who died in 1982, predicted the complete demise of the public concert by the end of the century. He called his forecast a “self-evident truth.”
When he made the prediction, the pianist had himself been absent from the concert platform for two years. He renounced the stage in 1964, at age 31 and at the peak of his career, in order to devote himself to records, radio, television, and film making.
For the shy, outrageous, ascetic, teetotaling Gould, who loved nothing more than solitude in the Canadian North, concerts were “contemporary vaudeville.” He wrote that “one should not voyeuristically watch one’s fellow human beings in testing situations that do not pragmatically need to be tested. The concert has been replaced.”
Moreover, Gould believed the concert stage brought out the worst in performers, himself included. In an interview with CBS record producer John McClure, reissued as part of a recent CBS album, “The Glenn Gould Legacy, Vol. I – J.S. Bach” (CBS M4X 38614), Gould describes how his 1957 concert performances in the Soviet Union of Bach’s Partita No. 5 distorted his conception of the music and infected his subsequent recording of the piece. Because of the live performances, he says, the recording took on “accrued bad habits, dynamic hangups, crescendi and decrescendi and hairpins that destroyed the fabric of the music.”
In traditional concert life, there were simply too many variables for Gould to accept: mechanically faulty pianos, drafty auditoriums, the perils of airplane travel, and the “non-take-twoness” of the performing act itself.
“A tremendous conservatism takes over the concert performer, and a stagnation sets in,” he tells McClure on the recorded interview. “An innate conservatism belongs to the concert experience.”
Gould not only hated giving concerts, he hated attending them. “There’s a curious, almost sadistic lust for blood that overcomes the concertgoer….I don’t like him as a breed, I don’t trust him…I wouldn’t have a concertgoer as a friend.”
Gould’s perfectionism and need for absolute control were best-suited to the recording studio, which he called “the most womblike experience one can have in music.” He was always more comfortable in front of microphones than in front of people. Far from being intimidated by electronic paraphernalia, Gould relished the heightened control the recording process allows the musician to exercise.
In light of his aversion to public concert-giving, one item in the CBS set assumes particular interest, a live performance of Bach’s D-minor Concerto that Gould gave in Leningrad in 1957. For those who never heard Gould in public, it provides an opportunity to compare the pianist’s theorizing about his live performances with the reality.
There are no pianistic imperfections on this live Bach from Leningrad. Instead, we have vintage Gould, as the intricate polyphony emerges with fabulous clarity, thrusting rhythms and mature musicianship (the pianist was 25 then.) Nothing in his playing supports his theories about the corrupting effect of live concert-giving.
Adding interest to the Bach D-minor performances is the fact that Gould made a studio recording of the piece the same year, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (currently available on Columbia MY 38524.) The studio version benefits particularly from Mr. Bernstein’s conducting, more tautly conceived and supple than that of his counterpart, Vladislav Slovak. The performance is more thoroughly integrated as a result, more impassioned and keenly focused.
Perhaps the most celebrated episode in Gould’s brief, nine-year career as a touring concert artist was his rendition of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Mr. Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall in April 1962. In rehearsal, Gould’s conception apparently so surprised conductor and orchestra that Mr. Bernstein decided to offer a disclaimer to the audience before the concert.
There exists a noncommercial recording of the performance, complete with the conductor’s prefatory disclaimer, in the Radio Archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. The disclaimer has a vaguely patronizing tone. “I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception,” Mr. Bernstein tells the Friday afternoon audience. “I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith. And his conception is interesting enough that I feel you should hear it too.” He goes on to call it a “wholly new and incompatible concept…The discrepancies between our views are so great that I must make this small disclaimer.”
The reading is astonishingly slow. Gould apparently loathed the genre of the 19th-century virtuoso concerto; he rejected the traditions that pitted soloist against orchestra. A “competitive” spirit in music-making, as he saw it, was one more reason to renounce the concert stage. He considered the concerto form intrinsically “aggressive,” as well as competitive, and thought the public’s expectations of it demeaning to the performer. He believed audiences exaggerate the dualism between orchestra and soloist. In the Brahms concerto, Gould tried to temper the “duel,” to treat the heaven-storming piece in a relatively circumspect manner, with the solo “exhibitionism” reduced to a minimum by means of restrained dynamics and consistent tempos.
The performance avoids blood-and-thunder heroics in favor of patient and controlled explication. Brahms’s early style was built upon long-limbed themes, rather than tautly argued motives, and Gould’s spacious approach underlines this. There are some unorthodox tamperings with louds and softs, but overall it is a serious statement of the piece that seems to have nothing to do with the pianist’s apparently limitless capacity to outrage.
The piece impresses here as a symphony with piano obbligato, which was Gould’s idea. What we have, essentially, are three slow movements, with the “slow movement” slowest of all, instead of the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto configuration. There are no concessions to “tradition.” Even the menacing trills are slowed down and, as always with Gould, there is exemplary clarity.
Gould’s re-creation seethes with ideas. The Gould / Bernstein chemistry, so potent in the concert hall and on records, here produces what might be termed “music criticism in live performance” – no moment-to-moment indulgence or idle showiness, but a coherent vision of how a sprawling musical canvas was assembled, and how it can be vibrantly renewed. It emphatically contradicts Gould’s claims that live audiences polluted his performances.