The late Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was perhaps the most unique pianist of the second half of the twentieth century. Born in Toronto, he burst onto the world’s attention in 1955 with a recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations. These most fiendishly difficult of variations were originally written for one of Bach’s best students in the hopes that they would alleviate the sleeplessness of the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court. I’m not sure that these had much of an effect.
They had been recorded before. The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, the woman who almost singlehandedly brought back the harpsichord as a viable concert instrument, had recorded them once before. They were not really well known before then by much of the music-loving public. Gould’s 1955 recording literally topped the charts, even beating out some of the popular music of the day. And that recording, in all of its monoraul glory, has never gone out of print.
Gould was unique. His playing style, as you will see in this video, breaks quite a few rules. My teacher would never have tolerated such things. Gould seems to break just about every rule of hand positioning and posture at the keyboard. Gould was able to get away with it with impunity. Unlike current performances of the Goldbergs, he ignores all the repeats, and takes certain variations at tempi no one would dare take now. Gould helped establish these as some of Bach’s most popular works. There are now many recordings of the Goldbergs in print, some on harspichord and others on piano. The great Bach specialist, Rosalyn Tureck, once performed the entire Goldbergs with repeats and all on the piano. Then, after an hour’s intermission, she played the entire set all over again, this time on the harpsichord. I wonder if things like this would have happened were it not for Gould. It would be as if a new translation of the Enneads of Plotinus topped the #1 bestseller list on the New York Times Review of Books for weeks on end. The Goldbergs contain some of the severest counterpoint in all of Bach. It is intellectual music at its best.
Gould is to the pianistic world what Bobby Fischer was to chess. He had a brilliant career. Yet after only eight years on the concert stage, he retired. From then on, he only made recordings, or television and radio programs. It is really unfortunate that Gould died when he did, as he was just getting into conducting. He died of a stroke at age 50.
This video shows a young Glenn Gould recording Bach’s Italian Concerto. The fingerwork is amazing as is his ability to balance all the contrapuntal lines.