Johann Sebastian Bach
Sony Classical Audio Discography
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On The "Muzak" Character Of The Fugue or Instructions For "Well-Tempered Listeners"
First, Johann Sebastian Bach and, second, perhaps the most important compendium of contrapuntal keyboard music after The Art of Fugue: as a line-up, one might be forgiven for thinking that "Columbia's" planned recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier would have been right up Glenn Gould's street and that he would have thrown himself into it with corresponding commitment. But a letter of August 1965 - written shortly after the final patching session on Book I - sounds anything but euphoric: "I have just this week finished Volume I of the W.T.C., thank goodness, and now I have little choice but to proceed onward into Book II." Even if (as we know from elsewhere) Gould regarded many of the preludes simply as "prosaically prefatory" (in other words, as a sort of compulsory exercise to which the performer has to submit before proceeding to the free section of the fugues), the undisguised lack of enthusiasm with which he contemplated the continuation of the recording project is surprising, to say the least.
And, indeed, it was almost a year to the day before Gould returned to the recording studio for the first session for Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier on August 8, 1966. It was followed by eight further sessions (a total of twelve days in the studio) before the final fugue was put down on January 31, 1971. A further sign of Gould's lack of enthusiasm is the fact that, of the five Preludes and Fugues (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7) which according to the relevant "Artist Contract Card" were due to be recorded on August 8, 1966, only the sixth - the D minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 875 -was completed, whereas the four others had to be added later on January 24 and February 20, 1967. (It may be added in parentheses that on November 29, 1966 Gould began one of his "Tuesday Night" recitals for CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with Fugues 7, 2, 6 and 1 - in that order and without the accompanying Preludes.) Moreover, the fact that the "talent payments" for August 9 and 10 listed additional costs for "Steinway & Sons rental/tuning" even suggests that the session was originally planned to last three days and that Gould broke it off prematurely. On February 6 and 7, 1967 "Columbia" once again had to pay Steinway "ch(ar)g(e)s for canc(elled) sess(ions)" that were presumably similarly intended for The Well-Tempered Clavier. Like Book I, Book II was originally released on three individual LPs, each containing eight preludes and fugues, so that the long break of a good two and a half years between the last take for the first record (February 20,1967) and the first take for the second record (September 11, 1969) may be a further indication of the fact that Gould did not approach this project with the degree of enthusiasm that might have been expected, given the repertory in question.
Another remarkable aspect of the whole affair is that both before and after the recording sessions Gould returned far more often to the second part of The Well-Tempered Clavier than to the first part, which he had worked through with his mother even before he had begun studying with Alberto Guerrero at the (Royal) Conservatory of Music in his home town of Toronto in the autumn of 1943. Apart from the CBS recording, the only audio-visual record of Book I is the D minor Fugue, BWV 851 that Gould played within the context of a two-part film portrait "Off the Record / On the Record" that he made for the "National Film Board of Canada" in June 1959, while recording the second Bach Partita and the Italian Concerto. As for Book II, Gould had already played three Preludes and Fugues (Nos. 14, 7 and 22) at a "Distinguished Artists" recital for CBC on February 28, 1954; in 1957 he recorded Fugues Nos. 9 and 14 as make-weights on his "Columbia" recording of Bach's fifth and sixth Partitas (Sony SMK 52594); on January 25, 1963 he recorded Fugues Nos. 7 and 22 for his CBC television feature "The Anatomy of Fugue"; from 1966 date the four fugues already mentioned in the context of his "Tuesday Night" recital for Canadian radio; Nos. 3, 9, 14 and 22 were broadcast in 1970 during Gould's studio interview, "The Well-Tempered Listener" - played, in part, on a harpsichord; and in Bruno Monsaingeon's film trilogy "Glenn Gould Plays Bach" (not broadcast until 1983, several months after Gould's death) the pianist played four Fugues - Nos. 3, 9, 19 and 22 - from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In short, he performed nine out of a total of twenty-four numbers, including several more than once (No. 3 was played twice, Nos. 7, 9 and 14 three times each and No. 22 as many as four times).
A comparison between the various versions of the E-flat major Fugue, BWV 876, for example, reveals extreme differences even in such basic matters as tempo: 3'19 minutes (CBC 1963) against 2'03 (CBC 1966) and 1'38 (CBS 1967). Much the same is true of the C-sharp major Fugue, BWV 872, the first version (CBS 1967) lasting 3'30 and, as such, taking twice as long as the second (CBC 1970), which Gould polished off in 1 '46. In the case of the second part of The Well-Tempered Clavier, too, Gould may well have made "ten or fifteen takes of a particular prelude or fugue", to quote Paul Myers on the recording sessions for Book I.
On February 18, 1970, CBC-TV broadcast an interview that Gould had recorded the previous year with Curtis Davis, the director of cultural programming for National Educational Television, "The Well-Tempered Listener". Inevitably, the conversation turned in the main around Gould's "Columbia" recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier. "I had a fascinating experience a couple of weeks ago", Gould recalled. "I satin a studio in New York and took a couple of Bach fugues from the 2nd volume of the '48' [...]: fugues that I've played all my life. [...] I played the entire piece with its four parts, or three parts or whatever it represented, and then having done that (it lasted 2 1/2 or 3 minutes), I put on a set of earphones and had fed to me my own clicktrack. [...] Then I went back to the bass voice and started playing it along with my control-performance, hearing only what I had just done, and hearing a muffled version, as one must necessarily do with earphones, of what I was doing. And having put down the bass voice in this fashion, we did the tenor and alto and soprano and so on. The extraordinary thing was that having known these pieces at least twenty years, I saw them and heard them afresh in the most extraordinary way. I had never realized things about the inner voice aspects of those fugues which are manifestly clear. [...]
I would like to try presenting that experience to the public in the form of a recording [...], presented in four-corner stereo, a speaker in each corner of the room; it would be a totally unreal performance and one would not in any sense be confronted with the spectacle or the sense of the awareness of somebody up there on the podium playing at you. You would be in the centre of the problem, so to speak, and I think that's really what the listener should try to do and the way in which performance experiment with Bach must continue. [...] I'm sure it would change the listener's whole notion of what Bach was, what the Baroque represented, what that whole incredibly involved experience of Baroque counterpoint really meant."
In much the same way, Gould's experiences while working on his "Docudramas" for Canadian radio - "The Latecomers", the second episode of his "Solitude Trilogy", was first broadcast on November 12, 1969 - changed his understanding of Bach and the Thomas cantor's art of fugue. (The parallels between Gould's idea of a "contrapuntal radio" and the contrapuntal writing of a fugue were certainly suggestive.) "I think that music has a lot to do with [...] the spoken word. With the rhythms and the patterns and the rise and the fall and the inclination of the spoken word. And the human voice." And, one could also add, with the cartoon film. "Looking at it from the point of view of its composition, it feels rather like having to put the piece together note by note by note, one at a time, to get each one exactly right and exactly in its right place -just the way you would put together animation cells to be able to ultimately simulate in motion that which, by the time it arrives in the form of a motion projected as a film, has to seem completely natural and flowing. [...] And yet in its technical execution, it has only been put together very, very slowly, piece by piece, painstakingly, and none of that must ever be apparent."
In coming to this somewhat "synthetic" understanding of fugue (and hence of the manner of its interpretation), Gould advanced an extremely bizarre thesis in his conversation with Curtis Davis, namely, that there is a connection between Bach and the "Muzak" played as background music in supermarkets, hotel lobbies and restaurants. "There is a real Muzak-like significance to the nature of the fugue itself, or in the nature of any music that involves the kind of Iive-a-life-of-its-own on behalf of each voice, because the prime function of a fugue is to suggest an experience that is essentially open-ended. I would like to think that one could dip in and dip out of an experience of music just as easily as you get into an elevator (with a bit of Mantovani for 35 seconds) to get to the 19th floor. [...] I think that, in a sense, this is what Bach was about, because obviously he was quite ready to accept all forms of interchangeably, as between different performing forces, as between keys."
For the mature, "well-tempered" listener, this ability to "dip in and dip out" of the Bach experience was entirely possible, Gould claimed: whenever they listened to a gramophone recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, such listeners could "play half a dozen, or play twenty-four at once, or play one only, or play half of one only". It was only a small step to the next logical stage in the argument, however insane it might otherwise seem to be: every listener should have his or her own home-entertainment centre equipped with scissors, sticky tape and sound mixer in order to be able to "take x number of fugues, only a portion of each of those selected, and make a compote out of it" - in short, a type of "hyper-fugue". This same idea recurs in 1974 in one of Gould's famous interviews with himself, Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould About Glenn Gould: "And you're prepared to have similar unauthorized permutations practiced on your own recorded output by listener or listeners unknown?", the dumbfounded glenn gould asked his opposite number. "I should have failed in my purpose otherwise", was Glenn Gould's decisive reply.
It matters little whether Gould was merely being wilfully provocative or whether he was advancing serious theses concerning the future of the media: Gould himself regarded none of his interpretations as sacrosanct; and if he himself had such and such a number of interpretative possibilities at his disposal, why, then, every "well-tempered listener" was equally entitled to bring his or her own interpretation to bear on the work. If, in spite of this, there are few listeners who would dare to "permu-tate" Gould's recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, it may well be. because this one interpretation bears within it the seed of all the others.
- Michael Stegemann
Well Tempered Clavier
About Well Tempered Clavier II on 'bach-cantatas.com'
исполнение WTK 1 (M.Pollini)
исполнение WTK 1 (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)