There is something magical, on a cold winter morning, to sit and pass Queen's Park listening to Glenn Gould play from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. When it warms up, at least above freezing, I think I'll take a tour of Gould's old haunts and spots for this blog.
Gould loomed large in my turning away from popular music in my teens towards becoming a hard core classical musician and classical music lover. Feeling a touch nostalgic, I don my sword and helmet, and defend for our dear departed Glenn from, who else, but rapacious capitalists. (ooooohhhhh....)
A while back, Glenn Glould performed at his namesake studio here in Toronto.
He's dead you say? Not anymore, thanks to technology. And to those of you offended by the sight of Audrey Hepburn selling pants at the Gap, this should really get your goat.
For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with him, Glenn Gould was arguably one of the best pianists of the second half of the 20th Century, and certainly one of the most eccentric. He was also someone who thought about music - claiming him for mylsef, I'd happily call him a philosopher of music - and the ways in which performers and audience interact with each other, and how technology would transform the conditions under which music was performed and listened to.
He practiced what he preached, and, dissatisfied with what he could produce live, retired from the concert hall in 1964. That is, until a month ago.
The Star's music critic struggled to make this strange story into something interesting (I can no longer find the story on their site). I think he fails, but not for lack of trying. Rather, perhaps out of a fear of incurring the wrath of the Gould estate, he is unwilling to take on cult that has formed around Gould's music and writings since his death in 1982.
Full disclosure - I attended both Glenn Gould conferences, in 1992 and 1999. As I mentioned earlier, I was a big fan as a teenager, listening to the 1955 Goldberg Variations most mornings on the way to school, in a passive homage to Ralph Kirkpatrick's playing the Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety every day - my pianistic skills at that point weren't up to the task!
Through providence, I was able to attend the first conference for the cost of my plane ticket, finding myself staying for free in the Annex with a wealthy lawyer and a patron of the arts. It was my first time in Toronto as an adult, and my impression of the city that week laid the foundation for my eventual relocation.
During my time here, I realised that, in the hierarchy of fandom, I was a pale shadow to some of the fascinating and sometimes creepy Gouldians out there.
These people were hardcore.
What I had half-consciously thought of as a pilgrimage became a revaluation of my own thoughts about Gould, a splash of water to my own marginally obsessive nature. This was a fan base whose devotion and intensity can only compared to that of Elvis Presley fans.
On the other side of the fans, you have Glenn Gould's estate, which aggressively goes after anything and anyone who dares whisper his name. Indeed, their FAQs inform you that if you draw a picture of him and attempt to make it public, you will need their permission, by which I take it that if you don't get their permission, they will sue you. These are the same people who felt it appropriate to his reclusive personality to plop a sculpture of him in front of the CBC building in Toronto. One wonders what will happen if I go and do some photoblogging...
The 1999 conference was even stranger. The 1992 one had the pretence of being about Gould's thinking on music and technology. The 1999 conference was hero worship.
The fans at this conference were vastly more disturbing than the first one. In one session, John Roberts, Gould's closest friend, spoke of Gould's torment and increasing paranoia as he aged. For this, he was assaulted verbally by "fans" who would brook no criticism of their Glenn. People who never knew him challenged the man who knew him better than anyone.
This brings me to this bizarre concert. That they used Gould as a model is unsurprising to me. Rather, what I found strange was that everyone compared it was a live performance.
Programming a piano to play a recording is much closer to pressing "play" on a CD player than it is to watching someone play the piece. Moreover, it appears to have escaped most people writing on the concert that the original recording was never live in any sense. Gould certainly recorded the variations in their entirety, but sections would have been spliced and variations re-recorded until things sounded right.
But given Gould's reputation as an extreme perfectionist, who's to say that the 1955 version played on that piano would have met his requirements? Who's to say he would have liked the sound? What are we saying here about the death of the performer? In other words, how can we say this was Glenn Gould performing live in a concert hall?
Indeed, it only makes sense to someone like Sony Classical and Zenph Studios, which John Terauds says is "a North Carolina firm devoted to improving on old piano recordings with the latest computer wizardry". This isn't an improvement though, it's an entirely new recording, but the really important thing is that it gives Sony Classical a way to sell another permutation of what is probably one of the most profitable classical recordings of all time.
Since the 1992 conference, Sony has re-released the Goldberg Variations umpteen times, each with some new bit to ensure that the real fans feel compelled to buy the latest version. This enterprise is about making money, and not about Gould, beyond the fact that the Gould brand is a very profitable one. (Just to note, I have a single copy of the 1955 recording, which I bought in 1990.)
I guess as someone who would claim Gould as a formative influence in my own musical thinking, his crass commercialization by the various entities who own his legacy bothers me, especially because it seems so very opposite to anything I've ever heard about the man.
But what do I know, really? I am just a fan.
From the get go, Gawain's dislike of Beethoven unnerved me.
I know he has a nice, tidy, some would even say scientific, explanation for this dislike, but it still bothers me, mainly because I can't stop listening to Beethoven. And now that I have the piano, I can't stop playing him.
And I feel I owe Gawain for having brought me towards a greater appreciation of Shostakovich, via his string quartets. So I'd like to return the favour.
Is there an essence of Beethoven that precludes one's enjoyment? Beethoven's compositional range was vast - his manipulation of motive and structure was so masterful that my jaw still drops at his inventiveness, especially within the restricted (by our standards) tonal language and forms he used. His music really still sounds modern, in a way that Mozart's or Chopin's does not.
The guy wrote so much music in so many different ways, indeed, it's part of his greatness - how does one not like any of it?
I wonder if Gawain takes Beethoven too seriously. Or, like the cult of Glenn Gould out there, the much older and insidious cult of Beethoven has coloured his thoughts. We know the story - Beethoven was serious, deaf and deeply unhappy. Yes he was, but more importantly, he was a man, a man full of spirit and humour. He is someone worth going out of one's way to get to know.
How do we cure poor Gawain of his Beethovenitis? What work of his could mark the entry point to Elysium for our tired knight?
My suggestion, after careful deliberation, is Beethoven's 18th piano sonata, Op. 31 No. 3. Gawain, get yourself a good recording of this work - try the Richter, although the light heartedness of the work should come through on any decent recording.
Or better yet, try to get a hold of Viennese-Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti's magnificent recording. His Beethoven Sonata cycle is the best modern one out there. Beethoven is a slippery creature to Kuerti, and we are richer for it. No pigeon holes here!
I think this might do the trick - and I'd stick to this period of piano sonatas until you're ready for the next step!