Glenn Gould on SACD

Genius Sounding Better

Glenn Gould on SACD

There are several subplots to the compelling story of the one-of-a-kind Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who died at the age of 50 in 1982. His eccentricities, at the piano and away from it; his extensive writings, frequently ponderous and intelligible only to a minority of those who read them; his hypochondriasis; his broad humor; his genuinely brilliant forays into other artistic realms such as his “contrapuntal radio” projects; and, of course, his clarifying and engrossing musicianship, especially as applied to the keyboard music of J.S. Bach—all are components of a legend that has grown in the decades since his passing. But no aspect of his legacy is more central to understanding Gould’s significance than his decision, acted on in his early 30s, to give up public performance and express himself solely through recordings and broadcasts. Gould’s devotion to technology as it relates to artistic endeavor was extraordinary in the 1960s and 70s and remains powerfully relevant today.

Gould was famous throughout Canada by his late teens, but true stardom followed his Town Hall recital in New York City on January 11, 1955. David Oppenheim, the A & R director for Columbia Masterworks, was present at the concert and the next day offered Gould an exclusive recording contract. In June of 1955 the pianist returned to New York to tape Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. The venue was Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, the converted church where Miles Davis would record Kind of Blue just a few years later. Kevin Bazzana, in his excellent Gould biography, Wondrous Strange, notes: “Though it was his first taste of the big leagues in the record business, he already showed remarkable presence of mind. Outtakes reveal that the twenty-two-year-old knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it, worked confidently with much more experienced colleagues, and was already starting to take charge of his recording sessions.” The Goldbergs were ecstatically received and by 1960 had sold 40,000 copies, then (as now) an extraordinary number for a classical release, especially given that BWV 988 was then a fairly obscure composition.

Gould’s star had risen fully, and he was greatly in demand to perform on both sides of the Atlantic. But by the early 1960s he was cancelling 20 to 30 percent of his engagements, and he made his last public concert appearance in April of 1964. There was no announcement—Gould just stopped scheduling concerts. Why? He commanded high fees for recital and concerto dates and didn’t have stage fright, at least no more than most professional musicians. He disliked travelling (Gould was forever changing hotels with complaints regarding the beds or air conditioning) and hated the social obligations that went along with being a high-profile virtuoso.

But Gould’s main objections to live concerts were philosophical and moral. He wasn’t much interested in the show-offy music that the typical virtuoso programmed to wow audiences; there were no Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff concertos in his repertoire. More critically, the pianist stated, “There’s a very curious and almost sadistic lust for blood that overcomes the concert listener. There’s a waiting for it to happen, a waiting for the horn to fluff, a waiting for the strings to become ragged, a waiting for the conductor to forget to subdivide, you know. And it’s dreadful! I mean, there’s a kind a gladiatorial instinct that comes upon the hardened, the case-hardened concertgoer, which is why I suppose I don’t like him as a breed, and I don’t trust him, and I wouldn’t want one as a friend.” So, Gould stopped subjecting himself to that environment and was much happier and more productive as a result.

After he stopped giving concerts, the rate at which Gould made records accelerated. “My idea of happiness is 250 days a year in a recording studio,” he said. Gould, in fact, released more than 30 albums in the decade after he ceased touring. Additionally, the end of concertizing also liberated the pianist in terms of what he played. Gould would learn works just to record them, comparing this practice to a soap opera actor who learns his lines immediately before a daily filming and then forgets them. He recorded Scriabin and Prokofiev sonatas, Wagner transcriptions, and Handel on a harpsichord. Though the sound quality of Gould’s recordings, as heard on LP and CD, was decent if not exceptional, the pianist’s musical imagination and execution are so extraordinary that his genius can be fully appreciated on “standard” media.

Given Gould’s reputation as a technophile, though, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that he would have been enthusiastic about high-resolution reissues of his material. To this point, 13 Gould albums—a total of 24 discs—are available as SACDs [see table]. These include two-single layer SACDs that were among Sony’s initial releases in the format, eleven from Sony Japan (two duplicate the earlier single-layer discs in content, but are hybrids) and the tour-de-force Zenph “re-recording” of the 1955 Goldberg Variations. In all instances, I find the SACDs to be sonically superior to the various LP and CD versions I have at hand. Most of my vinyl specimens were/are afflicted with noisier-than-was-the-norm surfaces. The compact disc solved that problem, but the piano sound on the CDs was not truly satisfactory in tonal color and the way the attack of each note connected to its body.

The majority of the more than 80 albums Gould made for Columbia/CBS were taped in the 30th Street facility in New York, though in the early 1970s, Gould began having sessions in the seventh-floor auditorium of Eaton’s department store in downtown Toronto, using his own recording gear. (His producer, Andrew Kazdin, grumbled, “I wish CBS had equipment as good as he has.”) There, the piano was positioned on the floor between the front of the stage and the first row of seats, the lid was removed, and microphones positioned closer to the instrument than they were at 30th Street. The pianist considered the 1275-seat hall to be acoustically ideal. Drier than 30th Street, the acoustic was perfectly suited to Gould’s repertoire and style of playing. After a decade, the future of the Eaton’s space became uncertain and Gould returned to New York to make what turned out to be his last few piano recordings.

In addition to the requirement to abandon Eaton’s, a second disruption to Gould’s routine was damage to his favorite Steinway in the fall of 1971. Gould, his piano technicians, and Steinway spent years attempting to restore the instrument to its former glory, without success. By 1981, the artist had defected to Yamaha, purchasing two of that manufacturer’s pianos. As yet another change around this time, Gould’s last five New York projects were recorded digitally—he liked the “clarity and immediacy” of the digital methodology. This was not casual acceptance of a new technology on the pianist’s part: He amazed CBS engineers with his ability to consistently distinguish between, by ear, digital recorders built by Sony and Mitsubishi.

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