Glenn Gould on SACD

Genius Sounding Better

Glenn Gould on SACD

As the Gould SACD discography stands now, there can be no serious complaints about what’s available—just longing for more. Over half of it is Bach, entirely appropriate, given the artist’s recorded legacy. The rest at least begins to honor the remarkable breadth of Gould’s interests and abilities.

The epochal 1955 Goldbergs were the first commercial project for Zenph Sound Innovations, a North Carolina company founded by Dr. John Q. Walker, a computer scientist and amateur pianist. Zenph developed technology to analyze “old” recordings—Edison cylinders, vinyl, magnetic tape—for numerous metrics, including pitch, attack, duration, timbre, and so on, and then translate that data into physical aspects of piano playing that could be fed to a MIDI-equipped Yamaha Disklavier Pro grand piano for “re-performance.” The hybrid multichannel SACD released by Sony does complete justice to the technological magic achieved in Raleigh.

Gould made second recordings of only a few pieces over his career, most famously the Goldberg Variations, returning to the 30th Street Studio in April and May of 1981. As above, much was different from 1955: Gould was playing a Yamaha CT Concert Grand and this was, of course, a stereo digital encoding. (An analog recorder ran as well, and that tape, converted to DSD, was used to generate the 1981 performance included in Sony’s A State of Wonder three-CD set.) Most importantly, Gould’s thinking about the work had evolved since he was 22. He regretted some of the rapid tempos employed the first time around, and the second recording is more than 12 minutes longer, though some of that is accounted for by repeats that were observed in 1981. A few movements, such as the opening Aria, are a lot slower (3:05 vs. 1:55). Gould told one interviewer: “The music that really interests me is inevitably music with an explosion of simultaneous ideas. With really complex contrapuntal textures, one does need a certain deliberation, a certain deliberateness.” Gould’s approach to the second Goldberg recording is introspective and cerebral, involving an elaborate scheme that interrelates the rhythmic aspects of the variations; this helps give the overall performance a strong sense of unity. Likely a consequence of both the change in instrument and the early digital encoding, the piano sound has a somewhat glassy character.

The other Bach recordings are also classics, and the improved sound only serves to amplify their intellectual and emotional power. One well-known glitch gains slightly in prominence as well. Contributing to Gould’s dry, precise tone was the manner in which the action of his piano was adjusted. The action was very “tight”—little force was required for the hammer to strike the strings and produce sound. Gould, it was said, cared more about how a piano felt when he played it than how the instrument actually sounded. With the 1964 recording of the Two and Three Part Inventions, there are instances when a single finger depression results in a hammer striking the strings twice. Gould was remarkably blasé about what was called “the hiccough,” referring to it as a “charming idiosyncrasy.” On vinyl or CD, it resembles tape flutter, a sort of wateriness of the piano sound. On SACD, it’s much more apparent what’s going on.

The non-Bach material is treasurable as well. This includes a four-disc set of Mozart, a composer that Gould declared he didn’t care for much. And, at times, Gould does seem to be poking fun at the music—there are out-of-the-blue gruff accents, and some of the tempos he adopts are preposterously fleet—yet the ornamentation is tasteful and the pianist never misses a chance to italicize contrapuntal constructions when they come up. About an hour of the material was recorded at Eaton’s, and though the change in venue and microphone placement isn’t jarring in the least, it’s apparent with the DSD remastering—and preferable.

Gould’s Beethoven is always absorbing and frequently revealing. His disdain for Romantic piano concertos notwithstanding, these works were an important part of Gould’s repertoire during his concertizing years. For the recordings, he had experienced and sympathetic accompanists—Vladimir Golschmann for No. 1, Leopold Stokowski for No. 5, and Leonard Bernstein for Nos. 2, 3, and 4. (The popular belief that Gould and Bernstein’s musical collaborations were contentious is simply not true.) The five performances are distinctive but not peculiar, though the “bravura” moments in the C Minor and Emperor concertos are scaled back. The best sound is heard on the two recordings that originated from the Manhattan Center; they manifest a less cramped orchestral sonority. The album of three popular Beethoven piano sonatas is more idiosyncratic, with some pretty extreme tempos, both fast and slow. Most striking is the opening movement of the Appassionata. Gould takes 16:01 to play it; by comparison, Ivan Moravec, Rudolf Buchbinder, and Richard Goode require 9:50, 9:01, and 8:35 respectively. The music acquires an obsessive quality, a kind of proto-minimalism (a compositional style that Gould couldn’t stand). Other interpretive decisions also seem a bit contrarian. For example, the tender Adagio cantabile of the Pathétique sonata is played almost mechanically, with hardly any rubato. Gould is always interesting.

Gould stated in 1980, “I have something like a century-long blind spot with regard to music. It’s roughly demarcated by The Art of the Fugue on one side and Tristan on the other.” In fact, Gould was a closet Romantic, and two SACDs in this batch demonstrate this nicely. Gould proudly referred to his 1961 Brahms album as “the sexiest interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzi you’ve ever heard.” Indeed, some of the autumnal mood of the pieces that’s usually encountered is missing, replaced by a warm sensuality. More remarkable yet is Gould’s Wagner program, which includes three of the pianist’s own transcriptions. The Die Meistersinger Overture has loads of contrapuntal passages for Gould to sink his teeth into, and he exploits the possibilities thoroughly by overdubbing additional lines at key moments. Arrangements of music from Götterdämmerung and the Siegfried Idyll are nearly as successful. The piano pieces were recorded at Eaton’s in 1973. The disc then closes, poignantly, with a second performance of Siegfried Idyll, this one representing Gould’s recorded debut as a conductor. It was also Gould’s last recording: he had a fatal stroke less than three weeks later. Gould leads a languorous performance of the original chamber version for 13 instruments, with an ensemble of some of Toronto’s best instrumentalists, a group assembled for the occasion. At the time of his totally unanticipated death, Gould was actively planning to leave the piano behind and take on conducting projects. It would not have been all that surprising if he had pulled it off.

One hopes that Sony Japan continues to release high-resolution versions of Glenn Gould’s extraordinary recordings. The 13 SACD albums now available, for example, present none of his performances of modern music—“difficult” composers like Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, and Krenek, but also the two tonally-oriented 20th-century masters he championed, Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss. It would be great to have in HD sound his Haydn, his early music (Byrd, Gibbons, etc.), his Scriabin, and, of course, more Bach, including the Toccatas and keyboard concertos. In a real way, Gould wanted to disappear from the equation when he made recordings—all he wanted to remain was the music itself. That seems to be how it’s worked out: Millions of his recordings have been sold since he died, significantly more than when he was alive. Gould maintained, “There is no greater community of spirit than that between the artist and the listener at home.” As audiophiles, I think we can all concur with that sentiment.