Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
Glenn Gould, piano.
This is not a review of Sony's new Glenn Gould Edition, although it started out to be. Rather, it is a tale of deceit and treachery, of promises broken and faith destroyed.
The seeds of all crimes are sown in the past, and so here. In 1992, with the mammoth 100-volume Leonard Bernstein reissue under way, Sony turned for its next project to the second most popular past classical artist in the Columbia catalogue.
Glenn Gould had electrified the world of classical music and catapulted to fame in 1955 at the age of 22 with his phonographic debut of Bach's Goldberg Variations (on ML-5060). In lieu of performing the work with traditional refined grace on the authentic harpsichord, Gould regarded it as "pregnant with promise and capacity for exhaustive exploitation," and proceeded to unleash his radical reconception on a piano using extreme tempos, huge dynamics and a phenomenal technique. Lest any listener doubt that the flamboyance was anchored in intellect, the album was accompanied by Gould's own baffling notes which explained, among other things, that "the fundamental variative ambition of this work is not to be found in organic fabrication but in a community of sentiment."
Gould followed his Bach with an only slightly less quirky album of the last three Beethoven Piano Sonatas (on ML-5130). He then proceeded to cement his fame by effectively withdrawing from the concert stage. Over the next 25 years, he focussed his efforts in the studio and issued dozens of albums of all sorts of piano music, both famous and obscure. His probing writing continued, but became leavened with an eccentric sort of humor; the album notes for his amazing reading of the Liszt piano transcription of Beethoven's Symphony # 5 (on MS-7095) featured a blisteringly negative British review of his performance.
Gould's records were unified by his unique sound, a bizarre blend of perfection and indifference. More than any other pianist, Gould used the resources of the studio to craft performances that simply couldn't have occurred in a concert setting. He embraced editing to create note-perfect performances of nearly super-human speed and dexterity. He enhanced the emotional atmosphere of his records by mixing unprecedented numbers of microphones to obtain ambience effects.
And yet, Gould made no effort to disguise his eccentricities, which are all too often audible. He refused to give up his treasured piano stool, despite its loud creaking every time he shifted his weight. Much of his solo work veered toward aleatory duets with his loud, off-key groaning. But perhaps the most striking combination of care and fluke arose from his favorite piano, an abandoned Steinway upon which he constantly performed "major surgery" to refine its responsiveness and clarity; in the process, though, the instrument developed peculiar buzzes and resonances which Gould claimed to find charming and refused to fix, consistent with, as he put it, his "sober conviction that no piano need feel duty-bound to always sound like a piano."
Gould died in 1982 at the age of 50. One of his last projects was a digital remake of the Goldberg Variations, thus bringing his art and recording career full circle. Since then, his legend has been stoked by sporadic CD reissues, both of his studio work on CBS and of his rare concerts and broadcasts on Music & Arts and other labels. So when Sony announced that its Glenn Gould Edition would include all material for which rights could be obtained, Gould's legions of fans had reason to rejoice.
At first, their expectations were largely fulfilled. The first 15 volumes, issued in late 1992, covered a broad range of music, from Bach to Hindemith. The discs were attractive, well-annotated and affordable, since the series was all mid-priced. Throughout most of 1993, further volumes appeared. But then, once fans were hooked, had cleared off shelf space and had sworn off pirate CDs, all in anticipation of collecting the complete official edition, Sony sprung the trap.
Without the slightest reason or warning, Sony raised the Glenn Gould Edition to full price. They did this covertly by simply raising the wholesale price (but not even bothering to change the prefix from the mid-price "SMK" designation), thus forcing retailers to follow suit. And as a further insult to consumers, several of the discs were barely half full, thus eroding their value even further. To begin a comprehensive project on one basis but then to complete it on a far less attractive one is unethical, pure and simple.
It would be unconscionable, of course, to suggest that any Goldmine reader retaliate by stooping to the degenerate act of buying the Glenn Gould Edition used (even though this would restore the effective price to the original level). But there is another suggestion that falls short of such near-criminal activity and will still line CBS/Sony's coffers with royalties, ill-deserved though they be.
As part of its scattershot earlier treatment of the Gould catalogue, CBS issued complete sets of his Mozart and Beethoven solo work on its budget Odyssey label. Either is a fine introduction to Gould's uniquely personal art. Grab them while they remain available.
Neither set is the type of idiomatic reading in which the performer's primary goal is to modestly convey the intentions of the composer. For that, it's hard to beat the superb mid-priced sets of the Mozart by Mitsuko Uchida (on Philips 422 517-2, 5 CDs) and of the Beethoven by Artur Schnabel (on EMI CHS 7 63765 2, 8 CDs). Gould is strikingly different: the composer is filtered through the strong, and occasionally overwhelming, personality of the performer.
Gould's magic is easily heard in two of the most popular Beethoven sonatas. The first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata (# 14) is normally played as contemplation, with subtly changing tempo and dynamics; Gould, though, speeds the music up and drains it of inflection in order to convey an impression of diffident grace and wistfulness rather than the usual melancholy despair. On the other hand, Gould slows down the first movement of the "Appassionata" Sonata (# 23) to barely half its standard pace, exaggerating its pauses and bass-heavy sonority to turn its drama into very heavy melodrama. Neither performance would serve to introduce a novice to Beethoven. But for those who already know these works, Gould is a revelation.
So strike a blow for decency. Show Sony's greedy bean-counters that classical consumers are not sheep. Buy the Odyssey sets and leave the Glenn Gould Edition alone!
Copyright 1993 by Peter Gutmann
2001 Update: Actually, I did eventually relent and reviewed much of the Glenn Gould Edition; please click here if you're interested.
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.