Gould's Conducting Dedut and Final Recording
Siegfried Idyll, Die Meistersinger, Gotterdammerung
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Glenn Gould Conducts And Plays Wagner
George Bernard Shaw once drew the distinction between conventional artists, who satisfy our preconceived notion of what is beautiful, and the much smaller tribe of artist-philosophers-figures such as Wagner and Ibsen, who compel us to reexamine our most basic beliefs about beauty and the ethical imperatives of the arts.
Among the many fine keyboard artists who emerged after World War II, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould stands out as one of Shaw's artist-philosophers. From his earliest days as a touring virtuoso during the 1950's, Gould presented listeners with the challenge of something new. His unique conception of piano sound, his boldly heterodox interpretive choices and his futuristic ideas about music and technology were hailed by some and deplored by others; but the issues he raised as an artist and ideologue were impossible to ignore and continue even now to be the subject of posthumous debate in books, magazines and musical symposia.
The hallmark of Gould's pianism was an astonishing digital control. His mastery of articulation was legendary: it is doubtful whether anyone else has been able to differentiate so clearly between so many contrasted varieties of staccato. Capable also of the subtlest dynamic graduations, he achieved an unsurpassed linear independence, textural pel-lucidity and expressive eloquence in polyphonic part-playing. Illuminated by such qualities, Gould's first recording of the Goldberg Variations, made in 1955 when he was but twenty-two years old, gained warm supporters among purists who had previously thought such clarity possible only on the harpsichord. The piano assumed a new lease on life as a Bach instrument - indeed, Gould-like sounds are now considered de rigueur for piano performances of mid-eighteenth-century music.
Most artists study and restudy a given score in search of a single "right way" to perform it. Gould, by contrast, liked to arm himself with a variety of interpretive strategies, often highly contrasted in tempo and in expressive character. He believed that he was not justified in recording a familiar piece unless he had a new and different interpretation to present. Sometimes this obligatory quest for originality descended to the quixotic (his unprecedentedly slow Appassionata Sonata struck most listeners as singularly dispassionate). On the other hand, Gould's measured tempi in certain Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Hindemkh movements revealed an unsuspected sublimity in the music, and his faster- than-usual prestos brought infectious 'humor and inimitable excitement to numerous scherzos and finales.
What most astonished older musicians about Gould was his attitude toward recording. As late as I960 it was accepted as a truism that great performers despised the phonograph. World renowned pianists and conductors stated in interview that music fully came into existence only in live performance - that recordings provided nothing more than a pale echo of the genuine musical experience. Gould provocatively proclaimed that recording was for those open-minded enough to recognize it the ideal medium for musical communication, offering the listener a more direct, more intimate, more concentrated and more purely aesthetic contact with music than was possible in public performance. Denouncing the concert hall as a hotbed of antimusical distractions, Gould charged that the "excitement" of live performance was too often a spiritually debasing product of mob psychology, irrelevant visual stimuli, unsavory performer posturing, social snobery and a mean-minded taste for critical one-up-manship. Observing that recording, once peripheral to musical life, had now become a central factor in it, Gould predicted that the public concert would soon become obsolete. Musicians of the future would ply their profession entirely in the recording studio, talcing fullest advantage of sonic manipulations to achieve beauties impossible in live performance.
In 1964, Gould stepped into this high-tech future himself, withdrawing totally from the concert scene. He subsequently allowed the public to hear his music-making only in carefully crafted recordings, radio broadcasts and video presentations. Wagner once said that, having invented the "invisible orchestra" at Bayreuth, he now wished to invent the invisible stage; it was this invisible stage from which Gould addressed his audience, like Wagner renouncing the world's conventional performance arenas and forcing listeners to accept his own terms of ideal presentation.
One would not, at first thought, associate the crystalline transparency of a Bach-specialist such as Gould with the lush sonorities of the ultra-romantic Wagner. But in fact Gould harbored a deep love for Wagner, a love founded in the inveterately polyphonic nature of his music. The present transcriptions not only gave Gould the chance to savour a first-hand experience of Wagner denied to most pianists but also furnished material for a disc that met Gould's cherished criteria by presenting familiar music in a stimulatingly new and different way. The familiar Gould legerdemain is evident in such densely contrapuntal passages as the Rhine Journey's horncall fugato and the Meistersinger Overture's fussy Beckmesser music with its ensuing climax - both tour-de-force of spiky rhythmic vigour and x-ray clarity. Revelling in the recording medium's power to transcend live performance, Gould designed a few of the thickest portions here for four-hand overdub-bing, seeing no musical reason to sacrifice Wagnerian richness to the limitations of ten invisible fingers.
Rather than try to imitate the orchestra, Gould reconceived these pieces for piano, substituting rhythmic figures for tremolos, introducing motive patterns into chords that proved too long for the piano to sustain, and altering bass doublings. Unexpected interpretive touches abound throughout. The master-singers' march theme near the overture's opening, usually a weighty affair, proceeds here at a puckish saunter; nor is the traditional slow-down of this theme at its final appearance observed, for Gould transforms Wagner's elephantine string swirls into airy flutters. In the daringly slow Siegfried Idyll, the descending-scale lullaby theme is introduced in a surprisingly unsentimental manner: affectionate treatment of it is saved for later.
Gould's early attempts at conducting discouraged him from continuing, for the arm-waving motions left him with muscular tensions that compromised his sovereign keyboard control. With his mastery of texture, however, he had the mind of a conductor, and he eventually made plans to try again, drawing up repertory lists that included piano concertos in which he could accompany himself via multitracking. Gould began his new conducting career in July 1982 when, with members of the Toronto Symphony, he recorded the original chamber version of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. Tragically, this debut performance, released for the first time on the present album, proved to be a farewell, for the chronically hypertensive Gould succumbed to a fatal stroke on the following October 4th, nine days after his fiftieth birthday.