Sunday, January 7, 2018

Gould Before his Break with Public Concerts

courtesy of Naxos of America

Last year was when I first began to take an interest in historical recordings released by Urania Records. As readers can probably guess (if they do not actually recall), I was attracted to Urania for their recordings of pianist Sviatoslav Richter, both of which were two-CD sets. The first of these came out at the beginning of April and consisted entirely of piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. This was followed by the July release of an album that devoted one CD to Franz Schubert and the second to Franz Liszt.

The most recent of these two-CD albums was released this past Friday; and the pianist now being presented in Glenn Gould. The collection consists almost entirely of works for piano and orchestra, the only exception being Beethoven’s WoO 80 set of 32 variations in C minor. As of this writing, has yet to offer it in physical form; but it is available for download as an MP3 album.

Those familiar with Gould’s biography will know that all of these recordings were made before April 10, 1964, the date of his last public performance. Not one to mince words. Gould called the institution of the public concert a “force of evil” and even laid out his argument in a manifesto given the acronym GPAADAK for “Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds.” One of the more notorious instances of his ideology came on April 6, 1962, when he performed Johannes Brahms Opus 15 (first) concerto in D minor with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Due to a disagreement over tempo, Bernstein preceded the performance by addressing the audience to absolve himself of responsibility for the results.

Ironically, the Urania collection begins with that same concerto recorded only half a year later on October 9 with Peter Adler conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The tempo is, indeed, slower than what many would wish to associate with this concerto; but, to be fair, there is no metronome marking in the Breitkopf & Härtel edition of Brahms’ collected works edited by Hans Gál. The only tempo marking is Maestoso. “Majesty” has connotations of stateliness, which would mark a significant departure from the tendency of many conductors to play the movement as if it were a Mahlerian Stürmisch bewegt (the tempo marking for the second movement of that composer’s fifth symphony, which translates as “moving stormily”). Perhaps Gould was aware of Bernstein’s tendency to bring out the Sturm und Drang (storm and drive) in all things and was determined to push the pendulum in the opposite direction.

If that were the case, then there is no questioning my siding with Gould. The fact is that Brahms crammed an awful lot of notes into the first movement of his Opus 15 concerto, not only for the piano soloist but also for the ensemble. Churning up a stormy rhetoric runs the risk that many of those notes will get lost in the bombast. Both Gould and Adler seem to have shared the opinion that the audience should have the best possible opportunity to listen to all of those notes; and, while the recording technology has its limitations, this is a refreshingly clear account of a youthful, but still well-considered, effort.

The other concerto included in this album could not be more different, Beethoven’s Opus 19 (second) concerto in B-flat major. This recording was made in Stockholm on October 5, 1958 with Georg Ludwig Jochum conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Like the Brahms concerto, this is an early composition; but its rhetorical stance is one of intimacy, which suggests that the orchestral resources should be those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, rather than those of Mahler. Gould not only appreciates the intimacy of Beethoven’s rhetoric but also acknowledges how much the young Beethoven could take pleasure in the exercise of wit (perhaps while giving I-can-do-that-too nods to his former teacher, Joseph Haydn). Opus 19 is a concerto in which both the soloist and the ensemble can kick back and have fun with Beethoven’s score; and this recording makes it clear that all performers willingly bought into this attitude.

The other two concertante offerings on this album are both single-movement selections. Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 79 Konzertstück in F minor is coupled with the Brahms, while Richard Strauss’ “Burleske” is coupled with the Beethoven. The Weber recording was made in Toronto in 1951 with Ernest MacMillan conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, while the Strauss is another Baltimore recording with Adler conducting, made on January 3, 1962.

At the end of last year, I put forth the “modest proposal” that young pianists might be better served in performing Weber’s music before being pushed by “proud parents and relatives” into the Beethoven repertoire. Opus 79 is a perfect example of music that allows any number of opportunities for showing off technical dexterity free of any obligation to acknowledge Beethoven’s capacity for subtlety. As might be expected, Gould is as playful with Opus 79 as he is with Beethoven’s Opus 19; and in the Weber case his playfulness more than adequately compensates for an overall structure that does not run as deep as what one encounters in Beethoven. That playfulness is just as evident in the Strauss selection, which comes across as a confrontation between piano and timpani that is delivered with engaging mock seriousness.

Do these recordings refute Gould’s manifesto? Perhaps the real question is whom Gould wished to target. While I can appreciate Gould’s attitude towards many audiences, I have to wonder if his decision to bail on the concert stage was actually one to bail on New Yorkers. Living at a time when air travel was becoming more commonplace, he probably appreciated that, even if he chose to play only in remote locations, there might well be a core of fanatics that would follow him anywhere (not to mention New York Times critics with the budget to write about performances outside the five boroughs). Furthermore, touring only to more remote locations would probably not be cost-effective. Better to reject the whole scene in favor of a more conducive comfort zone!

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