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The Art Of Glenn Gould
see end of review for track listing
rec. 1955-61
MAJOR CLASSICS M5CD502 [5 CDs: 75:00 + 34:34 + 62:07 + 43:36 + 42:00]

Few people in any field of human endeavour become legends in their own lifetime but Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was one.
 
Thirty-one years after his death and fifty-eight years after he first recorded them his Goldberg Variations remains among the most celebrated and best-selling classical recordings of all time with sales exceeding 100,000 for his 1955 recording at the time of his death. This continues to do good business. He recorded them again in 1981, this time digitally and in stereo and by 2000 that recording had sold over 2,000,000 copies, a feat rarely if ever achieved by recordings of classical music. The Goldberg Variations was a controversial choice of repertoire, especially given that it was to be his debut recording since it had hardly ever been recorded before. It was little known by the record buying public, something which is difficult to imagine today. His record company tried to dissuade him implying that it was best left to the likes of keyboard legends such as Wanda Landowska or Jörg Demus and that he should choose something more modest to start with. Gould, however, was adamant and recalled that the Goldberg Variations was the first work he ever learnt independently from his teacher, having begun studying it from 1950.
 
In the event his self confidence was proved justified and the January 1958 issue of Gramophone commented that “Gould is superior (to Landowska and Demus) in every way.” The choice of repertoire was controversial and so was the speed and this has added to the enigma that Gould has become. If you didn’t know the piece, and I confess I don’t know it well enough to have an aural benchmark in mind when I listen, then the speed though fast, doesn’t seem to me to be at odds with the music. That said, I had to check further to verify it when I read that fellow Canadian Angela Hewitt’s 1999 recording is twice as long at 78:32 as opposed to 38:34! There are those critics who say that Hewitt has the correct tempi for all the variations so it is very much a matter of taste. People often say that their favourite whisky is the one they’re drinking at the time and perhaps that may be the case for some when it comes to this work. To quote Gramophone again “Some of his tempi may be fast, but his is a speed connected with urgency more than with show or brilliance. He carries a phrase through a gigantic upward or forward sweep, effortless, controlled and clear as crystal ... Gould has some of the clearest counterpoint I have heard in a long time ... This is the kind of performance I shall treasure, for it has the kind of architecture in tone which is often longed for but rarely found.”
 
Years later Gould himself was critical of this first recording describing it as “too fast for comfort” and continued "I can no longer recognize the person who did that. To me today that piece has intensity without any sort of false glamour. Not a pianistic or instrumental intensity, a spiritual intensity." His 1981 recording was nearly 13 minutes longer so I must say that the 1955 version here is a white knuckle ride of fabulous listening. It often has you shaking your head; just listen to variation 21 and be amazed. First published in 1741 the Goldberg Variations are now 272 years old yet Gould makes it sound as if they had been composed yesterday and that to me is the true test. Whatever else you may think it makes you view Bach in a wholly new way with Gould seemingly able to concertina time. He makes the music here seem as fresh and modern as anything you could wish for. It is no wonder that Bach has been the inspiration for so many other composers down the centuries. The booklet notes by John Kehoe put it thus: “It was of little concern to Glenn Gould that Bach was a 17th-18th century composer. For this 20th century performer he was a 20th century composer, and Gould’s artistry would treat him as such”.
 
The rest of the first CD and the second are also of Bach and it is interesting to read in the notes of the way that Gould’s playing split opinion among critics who were often of the same mind about other concerts and other artists. Of the same concert where Gould played the D minor keyboard concerto with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos, Paul Henry Long of the Herald-Tribune wrote: “I found the performance nothing less than shocking. His tone was harsh, at times downright brutal. The whole thing was a caricature of a baroque concerto”. However, Winthrop Sargent of The New Yorker wrote that it was “a masterpiece of coherence, control and fine musical taste.” It only goes to show that beauty is also in the ear of the listener as much as it is it is in the eye of the beholder.
 
Despite feeling somewhat ambivalent about Beethoven it was his second piano concerto that Gould chose to launch his New York debut in 1957. The fact that it was considered as the Cinderella of Beethoven’s piano concertos mattered not to him or to Leonard Bernstein who conducted it. At the recording session that produced the performance on the third CD in this set Gould insisted on many retakes even when both Bernstein and the producer were satisfied. The result even had that most grudging of critics Harold C. Schonberg wax lyrical saying “The results are beautiful ... Mr Gould can play with considerable dash when necessary; but the overall impression is one of well-managed plasticity, of piano merging with orchestra and veering out again, of fine ensemble and musical finesse”.
 
The booklet notes explain that Gould was as pleased about the recording of the first piano concerto which was conducted by Vladimir Golschmann, writing to Golschmann that he hoped he was as proud as Gould was of it saying “There is a real joie de vivre about it from beginning to end.” It is interesting to read that it includes Gould’s own composed cadenza which he later criticized as being “vastly inappropriate” and is one of only three of Gould’s compositions to find their way onto disc.
 
Arriving at CD4 we come to another of Gould’s great loves, Haydn. He was very particular about which composers he would tackle just as he was about which piano he would play. Indeed on several tours he took his own piano with him. Again the notes are interesting as they explain how Gould was ahead in his thinking in relation to Haydn who was often regarded as a stripped-down version of Mozart. He made it his mission to ‘re-educate’ the public by presenting Haydn piano sonatas which were not at all popular at the time Gould recorded them. The Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob.XVI is played with an elegance that did indeed cause a reappraisal in both the public’s perception and with pianists who began to take the sonatas more seriously in concert and in the recording studio. It is also very interesting to read of Gould’s almost dismissive attitude to Mozart, a view that many will find as sacrilegious today as in the past. His opinion was that while Mozart’s early works were meritorious, likening them to both Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, his later works were “too operatic”. He regarded it as his duty to play them in a way that eliminated any such feeling, forcing the public to look at them afresh. Whatever one’s opinion of his way of looking at things one is forced to do just that as witnessed here with his recordings of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K.330 and Fantasia (Prelude) and Fugue for Piano in C major, K.394.
 
Gould generally dismissed the so-called ‘romantic’ composers such as Chopin so the final disc of his interpretations of Brahms’ intermezzi is a particularly fascinating and valuable document. These recordings were highly prized by Gould himself and he regarded them as among the best he ever made. He said that he felt as a friend commented “as though I was really playing for myself, but left the door open”. That is probably the best kind of playing one could hope to hear, as if one were eavesdropping on a private moment rather than on someone trying to produce a performance principally to please their listeners. There is a wonderful lightness of touch in his playing of these pieces. I wondered if it was in any way due to following his teacher Alberto Guerrero’s advice to pull down on the keys rather than striking them from above.
 
The booklet reproduces an article that Gould’s friend and producer at CBS Paul Myers wrote in 1973 and published in Gramophone which adds an illuminating insight into the mystique that surrounds this most idiosyncratic and enigmatic of pianists. Myers explains that Gould regarded himself not as a pianist but in his own words as “a composer who plays the piano” and that because he regarded the piano as the vehicle best suited to express himself and in order to be a servant of the composer and their music.
 
Glenn Gould was a complete one-off. There have been many attempts to explain his unique personality and at times perplexingly strange behaviour that led for example to his habit of overdressing in hat, coat, scarf and gloves even in 100degree weather, his dislike of being touched and his habit of humming whilst playing which was often picked up on recordings. Some have explained this as being due to a form of autism and even a form of Tourette syndrome. All these elements have over the years added to the fascination with this man that has resulted in books, articles and films but in the end it is his consummate artistry that is his legacy and the only valid way of viewing him. There is no doubt whatever that though opinion may be divided about his pianism and his interpretations he was so obviously a man who loved playing and who preferred recording over public performance with his final appearance in public being in 1964. Therefore those of us who are fans are truly blessed with a plethora of brilliance that is almost unsurpassed on record. These 5 CDs are part of that legacy and those who regard him highly will either already own these recordings or will rush to add them to their collection. No one who has yet to discover the wonder that is Glenn Gould should hesitate for a moment before hearing for themselves what a legend sounds like.
 
Steve Arloff
 
Masterwork Index: Bach keybaord concertos ~~ Beethoven concerto 1 ~~ Beethoven concerto 2

Track listing
CD 1
J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [38:34]
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971 [13:09]
Chromatic Fantasy in D minor, BWV 903a [6:20]
Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, BWV 906 [7:02]
Concerto in D minor after Alessandro Marcello, BWV 974 [9:53]
CD 2
J.S. BACH
Keyboard Concerto No.1 in D minor, BWV 1052* [24:12]
Keyboard Concerto No.5 in F minor, BWV 1056** [27:58]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein*; Vladimir Golschmann **
CD 3
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15 [22:07]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Golschmann
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.19 [27:58]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
CD 4
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob.XVI [17:54]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata in C major, K.330 [16:15]
Fantasia (Prelude) and Fugue for Piano in C major, K.394 [9:26]
CD 5
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in E flat major, Op.117, No.1 [5:34]
Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op.117, No.2 [5:26]
Intermezzo in C sharp minor, Op.117, No.3 [5:18]
Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op.118, No.6 [5:58]
Intermezzo in E major, Op.116, No.4 [4:17]
Intermezzo in A minor, Op.76, No.7 [3:56]
Intermezzo in A major, Op.76, No.6 [2:11]
Intermezzo in B minor, Op.119, No.1 [2:22]
Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 118, No.1 [1:03]
Intermezzo in A major, Op.118, No.2 [5:53]
Glenn Gould (piano)
rec. locations not specified, CD1 Goldberg Variations 1955, rest 1960, CD2 1959, CD3 1958, CD4 1958, CD5 1961


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