Johann Sebastian Bach
Sony Classical Audio Discography
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Neither "Teutonic Severity" Nor "Unwarranted Jubilation"
When Glenn Gould was born in Toronto on September 25, 1932 as the only child of the furrier Russell Herbert Gould and his wife Florence, his mother (already forty-two years old) must have thought that one of her fondest dreams was finally close to fulfilment: from her earliest youth she had lived for the idea that she would one day have a son whom she would bring up to be a musician. It is difficult to say what effects this maternal "idee fixe" may have had on Gould's development as an artist and, more especially, as a person. All that can be said for certain is that he showed musical abilities - including perfect pitch - at an extremely early age and that he was only three when Florence Gould gave him his first regular piano lessons in the autumn of 1935, using Louise Robyn's piano tutor for children, Keyboard Town. She remained Gould's only teacher until 1943 and certainly did not lack the necessary qualifications, playing both piano and organ and having worked as a singing teacher until her marriage. "Mothers of musical children must sacrifice and give of their time, often to the curtailment of social activity", she told a reporter in November 1951. "When Glenn practiced at noon I was always there and when he came home after school to practice again I was always home."
When Gould entered the piano class of the Chilean virtuoso, Alberto Guerrero, at the (Royal) Conservatory of Music in his home town of Toronto in the autumn of 1943, he and his mother had already worked through a part of the relevant repertory, including the whole of Book I of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. Gould's interest in Bach is all the more remarkable when one considers that, at the time he studied it, the majority of pianists avoided Bach's principal works "like the plague", as Gould himself later recalled. And although his "Bach renditions of those days were considered outrageously avant-garde, mainly because I avoided all contact with the pedal", his performance of the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor, BWV 867 from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier none the less won him first prize for that category in the 1946 "Piano Trophy Competition" at the "Kiwanis Music Festival" - the only piano competition in which Gould ever took part.
During the 1940s and 1950s Gould included individual pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier in his recital programmes, sometimes from Book I, sometimes from Book II, and often playing the fugue without the relevant prelude. In late July and early August 1957 the question arose of a filler for his CBS recording of Bach's fifth and sixth Partitas and here, too, Gould opted for two individual fugues from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 878 in E major and BWV 883 in F-sharp minor: Sony SMK 52594). True to his claim that the only music that interested him was contrapuntal, Gould always showed a far greater fondness for the fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier than for the preludes, which he described as "just prosaically prefatory" in his 1972 introduction to a printed edition of Book I of this "opus summum" of the Baroque keyboard repertory.
On January 10 and 11, 1962 Gould began recording The Well-Tempered Clavier for "Columbia" in the company's New York studios on 30th Street. That same month, for the Canadian television's "Sunday Music" series, he also taped a Bach programme that included a con-trapunctus from The Art of Fugue, the Cantata Widerstehe doch derSunde and the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which he played or accompanied on a "harpsipiano", an instrument that Gould himself defined as "a neurotic piano that thinks it's a harpsichord". Whether the suggestion that Gould might also record The Well-Tempered Clavier on "that offensive bastard, the tack-piano", as Gould's student friend John Beckwith apostrophized the instrument, was ever seriously intended may remain an open question: the recording was made on a "normal" concert grand - which may well strike purist advocates of historical performance practice as "abnormal" in the extreme.
The complete recording extended over a period of nine years (it was completed on January 31, 1971), taking a total of thirty-five days (or twenty-four sessions) in all. It was initially released on six individual LPs, with eight preludes and fugues per record; Books I and II were subsequently packaged separately and released as two three-record sets in 1965 and 1972 respectively.
"Gould possessed a phenomenal keyboard technique, which was an essential to his recording methods", Paul Myers, the producer responsible for the project, later recalled. (Only the Preludes and Fugues No. 2 in C minor, BWV 847 and No. 6 in D minor, BWV 851 were produced by Joseph Scianni alone.) "In the studio he liked to approach a work with few preconceptions, and each new take became an experiment in interpretation. When he recorded Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, he would make ten or fifteen takes of a particular prelude or fugue. Nearly every one of them would be note-perfect, but each was completely different, not only in tempo or dynamics but also in 'registration', voicing of musical lines, and emotional content. It was extraordinary to hear each version emerge as he considered it anew."
The process by which a definitive interpretation, destined to be released on record, is assembled or even spliced together from a greater or lesser number of individual takes (and in this respect The Well-Tempered Clavier was anything but an exception) was more than just a welcome argument in Gould's campaign against the concert hall and in favour of the recording studio. As Myers noted, virtually every take was "note-perfect" - which inevitably takes the wind out of the sails of all those who decry the "artificiality" of such a synthetic approach to recording and who describe it, in Andrew Kazdin's words, as a kind of "laboratory experiment wherein Frankenstein monsters were assembled from scraps of carnage". Even within the framework of a live recital, Gould could invariably have offered his audiences "perfect" versions of pieces which he would work on for days or even weeks in the recording studio. What interested him was not the (ultimately superficial) perfection of his playing, but his interpretation.
"You could take, to give you a current problem for me, the F minor Fugue from the first volume of the Forty-eight, which I am just now preparing to record, and find two absolutely satisfying ways to play it", Gould explained in around 1963 in a fictional interview with a certain David Johnson (who was none other than one of Gould's multiple personae). "The only qualification there is that since one has to play it, for recording purposes, with the accompanying prelude, that may throw some light on the decision. The version I've just committed to tape in a preliminary way is done extremely slowly, with pointillistic phrases every two notes in the subject, a la Webern, until you get to the last ones, where I put 'tenutos' and 'mar-catos', apostrophes as it were, over each note.
This is the way it now stands, but I am not entirely happy with it. There is a good case for doing this piece in a much more free-flowing, 'legato' fashion, and this would change the character of the fugue entirely. And there are reasons that make this extremely applicable because the fugue [...], however remarkable a piece, doesn't teach one a special lesson in counterpoint or in how to adjust voices [...]. And for that reason there is not the necessity of presenting it to contemporary ears as an important problem in that kind of contrapuntal adjustment. That's one argument. It spends a lot of time in A-flat and in D-flat major, which are obviously close relations to F minor but at the same time are rather frolicsome. [...] That's another argument. And so the Dixieland beat in this comes off surprisingly well; but I'm not fully convinced by it. I think I'll do it again in a slightly less intense version of what I've done up till now, which is perhaps too slow." It may be added that Gould's second, published version of the F minor Fugue still reveals clear signs of the Webernesque phrasing which he had adopted when recording it for the first time.
Whereas we are confronted here with two fundamentally different, not to say, incompatible interpretational models between which Gould was obliged to choose, the master tape of the A minor Fugue, BWV 865 - "one of Bach's celebrated contrapuntal obstacle courses" - was produced by a totally different process, which Gould himself described in detail in 1965 in his essay "The Prospects of Recording": "In the process of recording this fugue we attempted eight takes. Two of these at the time were regarded, according to the producer's notes, as satisfactory. Both of them, No. 6 and 8 respectively, were complete takes requiring no inserted slice - by no means a special achievement since the fugue's duration is only a bit over two minutes. Some weeks later, however, [...] when Takes 6 and 8 were played several times in rapid alternation, it became apparent that both had a defect of which we had been quite unaware in the studio: both were monotonous. [...] Upon most sober reflection, it was agreed that neither the Teutonic severity of Take 6 nor the unwarranted jubilation of Take 8 could be permitted to represent our best thoughts on this fugue. At this point someone noted that, despite the vast differences in character between the two takes, they were performed in almost identical tempo [...] and it was decided to turn this to advantage by creating one performance to consist alternately of Takes 6 and 8."
It is symptomatic of Gould and his view of himself as the "last Puritan" that he refused to judge his work in the studio solely by the criterion of its artistic admissibility but that he also (and perhaps above all) asked questions about its moral justification. For the radio version of "Prospects of Recording", he interviewed a series of witnesses on precisely this point; their remarks were later published as marginalia in the American magazine "High Fidelity" and include not only the above-quoted passage about the A minor Fugue from the "48", but also an accompanying statement by RCA's "Red Seal" director Richard Mohr: "Tape-splicing borders on immorality because there are many artists today on the concert stage or in the opera house who cannot give you the performance in life that they can give you on records." Are such recordings "Frankenstein monsters" after all? By no means. Mohr himself qualified his moral scruples by insisting that "there is always the possibility that you could get something absolutely perfect [in the recording studio] and it would be absolutely boring". And the director of CBS "Master-works", John McClure, even denied any "moral" connotation of tape-editing, arguing that it was no more a moral question "than the number of stage-hands used backstage at a play production is a moral question or the number of revisions of a book is a moral question. It's really the product that counts. The consumer's only concern should be what he hears and how he reacts to what he hears."
What the listener hears in the case of Gould's recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier - whatever his or her reaction may be - is certainly above all questions of morality.
Well Tempered Clavier
About Well Tempered Clavier I on 'bach-cantatas.com'
исполнение WTK 1 (M.Pollini)
исполнение WTK 2 (G.Gould)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (S.Feinberg)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (S.Richter)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (V.Ashkenazy)
исполнение WTK 1 (K.Jarrett)
исполнение WTK 2 (K.Jarrett)
исполнение WTK 1 (V.Afanassiev)
исполнение WTK 2 (V.Afanassiev)