This hour-long documentary, made for Canadian TV in 2002, charts Glenn Gould’s two week trip to Russia in May 1957. Negotiations went on behind the scenes for many months, after the pianist mooted his desire to make the visit. His profile had suddenly been raised with the phenomenal success of his Goldberg Variations. The logistics proved difficult in light of the atmosphere of the Cold War, and of two events which had taken place the previous year: the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Was it appropriate to send a Canadian pianist to Russia at such a critical time, and would it jeopardize Gould’s future standing in the USA? Diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing eventually resolved the difficulties, and the visit went ahead. He thus became the first North American pianist to play in Russia since World War 2. He was 24 years old.
At the beginning of the film, Vladimir Ashkenazy makes the apposite remark that Gould was ‘a phenomenon from another planet’. Others expressed similar sentiments. In fact the visit is still remembered with such strong emotions. Gould’s eccentric persona seems to have endeared him to the music-going public. It is amazing to witness how the Russian audiences in Moscow and Leningrad embraced him. His eccentricity and enigmatic personality no doubt added to the allure of this musical genius. Clad in overcoat, scarf and gloves, his attire somehow accentuated his vulnerabilities. His playing style also struck wonder and bewilderment in those looking on. Sitting at the keyboard in his low chair (adapted specially by his father), flat fingers with a low wrist position, humming along, swaying and conducting himself, all these idiosyncrasies somehow personified genius.
For those wanting to see more of Gould performing they will, like me, be disappointed. What brief snatches are shown, are ruined by continuous dialogue over the music. Most of the brief excerpts I had seen before; they are all available on the set of Sony Videotapes brought out in the 1990s. These have recently been transferred to DVD. I also wasn’t terribly impressed by the Gould look-a-like who is filmed in black and white wandering the streets in the pianist’s outdoor attire. He makes several appearances.
What comes across in the documentary is that Gould’s visit definitely ruffled a few feathers with the Soviet authorities. What surprised me was the attitude prevalent at the time towards Bach, the main staple of Gould’s diet. Bach's music was virtually banned at the time due to its religious nature. Also, his forays into the atonal music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Krenek met with some raised eyebrows. Then, these works were virtually unknown in Russia, and his programming of them no doubt appealed to the intellectual element. Several interviews in the documentary testify to the fact that his radical approach and individuality made a great impact on the youth. His first Moscow concert was sparsely attended in the first half. At intermission, word got around and diplomats, conductors, composers, pianists and music students flocked to get in and witness this wonder. A similar scenario repeated itself in Leningrad.
There are several interviews from such famous names and cultural figures as Ashkenazy and Rostropovich. Richter met the pianist and commented that he would like to play Bach as well as Gould, but would have to spend too much time practising to get to that level. A compliment indeed.
Whilst this documentary will be of interest to pianists and Gould aficionados, much of the material can be found elsewhere; there is nothing much new here. Also, there is a great deal of material written about the pianist out there: my bookshelves hold eight volumes. I would imagine, among classical performers, only Maria Callas has had more written about her. At fifty-six minutes, many will feel shortchanged with this DVD; more film of Gould performing could have been included.