January 10, 2008


Glenn Gould: The Young Maverick. CBC Records. $24.99 (6 CDs).

Glenn Gould: The Radio Artist. CBC Records. $24.99 (5 CDs).

      Glenn Gould said that he intended to give up playing the piano at age 50 and devote the rest of his life to conducting, writing and composing. He did indeed give up piano at 50 – but not as he planned. He lived barely 50 years, dying of a stroke just after his 50th birthday in 1982. Gould was always a highly controversial figure and a very polarizing one. Playing from an adjustable-height chair built for him by his father – so he could sit very low and pull down on the keys instead of striking them from above – he was noted for fast tempos; tremendous clarity in contrapuntal music (especially Bach’s, for which he modified his pianos to have shallower actions); idiosyncrasies in concert performances (he swayed his torso clockwise while playing); and out-of-the-mainstream viewpoints (he disliked Chopin’s music and was strongly critical of Mozart’s).

      Fans of Gould – and there are many – will welcome the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s discursive, well-priced six-CD set of his performances of works by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and, of course, Bach. Of particular interest is a 1954 live recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, made a year before the famous Columbia studio recording that became one of the best-selling albums of its time. Also here are the first three Beethoven concertos – Gould composed his own cadenzas for No. 1 – and the Eroica Variations. Sonatas Nos. 4, 19 and 28 are included, too, along with a variety of other works; there are three Beethoven CDs in all. On the two Bach CDs are the Italian Concerto, Three-Part Inventions and more. The Schoenberg/Berg/Webern CD is especially interesting for showing how Gould’s emphasis on clarity melds well with Webern’s minimalism, while also bringing out the lines of such works as Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Berg’s Piano Sonata, op. 1. The sound of the CDs is variable – never comparable to that of more-modern recordings, but quite good enough for at least occasional listening. The set is clearly only for Gould fans, or for people who have heard about this onetime “Young Maverick” without having experienced his performances. Nothing here is definitive – not even this Goldberg Variations (Gould recorded the work a total of four times). But for those who admired Gould’s artistry, or who want to know what all the fuss was about, this CBC set will be a genuine pleasure.

      Gould, who was born in Toronto and is buried there, had a longtime relationship with the CBC, and that is part of what accounts for Glenn Gould: The Radio Artist. Gould made a series of radio documentaries for the CBC, notably The Solitude Trilogy, created as three separate works between 1967 and 1977. Gould himself was a very private person and a lover of solitude; and in radio production as in musical performance, he was an eccentric. The three parts of The Solitude Trilogy are created using what could be called contrapuntal speech: multiple voices are heard at the same time, and it is up to listeners to hear all of them or choose specific ones on which to focus. The first three CDs in Glenn Gould: The Radio Artist comprise the three parts of The Solitude Trilogy. First and best known is The Idea of North (1967), about northern Canada; second is The Latecomers (1969), which focuses on Newfoundland; and third is The Quiet in the Land (1977), about Mennonite life in Manitoba. All are intriguing period pieces with interesting use of sound (including the final movement of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in The Idea of North). The CBC set also includes two overtly musical radio documentaries, each called A Portrait for Radio. One focuses on Pablo Casals, the other on Leopold Stokowski. There is sensitivity and care in all these works, but they are very much items of niche interest (and perhaps were that even when initially created); if they had not been produced by Gould, it is doubtful that their artistic merit alone would be sufficient for the CBC to offer them to the public. For dyed-in-the-wool Gould fans and those with an interest in Canada’s history and people, Glenn Gould: The Radio Artist will be of considerable interest; but it is emphatically not for most music lovers or, for that matter, for most lovers of the radio-documentary format.

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