Glenn Gould recording the Variations in Germany in 1955

De-Goulding: an incomplete coda

Part two of Mahan Esfahani’s deconstruction of the modern association of pianist Glenn Gould with Bach’s Goldberg Variations


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Those who had the patience for last month’s potted and highly subjective history of the modern performer’s reception of Bach’s Goldberg Variations would have been right to expect a sequel. Having stalked Glenn Gould, we must now grab the Canadian moose by his antlers. For the apostles of Gouldism, seeking unalloyed epic poetry masquerading as the skimmed milk of objective criticism, there are plenty of other writers to satisfy their urges. 

One might find it more interesting, if provocative, to consider how Gould’s interpretations of the Goldbergs fall within more or less established boundaries already set by other keyboard artists. Might his attitudes, often read by the literati as being deeply insightful, have more to do with the projection of relatively modern anxieties about the music and legacy of Bach?

Gould described Bach as an “instrumentally indifferent” composer

Indeed, one could very well parse each variation, each bar, each gesture, for some perceived element of influence, which, when placed in the anxious mouths of the uncharitable, might be pronounced as “unoriginal”. My intention is anything but, and this is in any case a futile exercise when it comes to the performance of classical music, which, by definition, depends and thrives on the tension between tradition and innovation. Rather, I suggest it is possible to trace a narrative of modern attitudes to Bach’s music in Gould’s playing and to examine how some of the traits of his studio and live recordings have clear antecedents in the work of others. 

One is struck by a few general impressions of where his work lies within the context of other performers. In contrast to the portentous gestures of Rosalyn Tureck, Gould, in each of his surviving recordings, delivers rather unsentimental, even bracing performances, though he and Tureck understood Bach in more or less the same, essentially post-Romantic way. More than a few of their mannerisms — the speed and rhythmic profile of ornaments, the perfectly-calculated yet thrilling panoply of colours — are straight out of Wanda Landowska’s playbook sans technicolor harpsichord. 

Gould’s understanding of the expressive potential of ornaments to emphasise the performer’s rhetoric is grounded as much in the work of his harpsichordist colleagues as it is in his own unique approach to the notes on the page. But where Ralph Kirkpatrick drily peers over his lowered spectacles, Gould grimaces — and Bach grimaces back. It is as though Gould shows us that he knows and has digested all the maxims and laws about Bach etched into stone and yet turns them on their head to deliver something completely his own, which he integrated perfectly within the ether of postwar music-making. 

The period between 1955 (Gould’s first studio recording) and 1981 (the second and final one) also saw a number of Goldbergs readings from practitioners of the early music movement. At that time they were generally more concerned with philological integrity than with the potential pitfalls of a subjective expressive decision erring on the side of incorrectness. 

What Gould thought of the recordings on period instruments by Leonhardt (1965 and 1976) or Alan Curtis (1976) is anyone’s guess, though at times one hears in the 1981 recording a tendency for certain decisions about articulation straight out of the harpsichordist’s bag of tricks. This may be total fantasy, as Gould’s mercifully few attempts at the harpsichord reveal a disappointing lack of sympathy with its idiom. 

Strange, then, that in the same recording there is no indication that Gould cared much about the 1975 discovery of Bach’s own handwritten corrections to the original 1741 printing. Edward Said’s description of Gould as a “virtuoso intellectual” must have been for other reasons, then. Intellect and pedantry are not one and the same, but then again, neither are pedantry and historicity. 

Any essay on Gould’s performances of Bach would be incomplete without some discussion of his careful consideration of the sound he wished to draw from the piano. Gould described Bach as an “instrumentally indifferent” composer, meaning that Bach not only did not fashion his ideas according to the instrument or voice at hand but, by extension, that he also did not concern himself with such mundanities as practical performance matters.In such remarks and with a predilection in his recordings for a closely-miked, even anti-pianistic sound, transformed by the pianist’s unequalled sense for colour — reinforcing his reputation as an anti-virtuoso — Gould showed himself to be a disciple of none other than his elder colleague, Tureck. While her sound ideal was based in traditional pianism, both artists devoted a considerable amount of energy in their interviews and writings to the idea of Bach’s music existing on a plane independent of actual physical vibrations and sounds. 

In the case of Tureck, this extended to a carefully cultivated language of physical gestures at the keyboard, implying the necessity of great histrionics in order to draw Bach out of an imperfect physical medium. The filmed evidence of Gould may seem somewhat odd, but in Tureck’s case the gestures, ever more exaggerated as her career advanced, suggest a uniquely dialectical, dour sensationalism. 

This pitfall of Bach having written a divine form of Augenmusik has very little to do with the reality of the composer’s careful application of his musical ideas to the actual sounds that people were supposed to make. That he often fashioned the same ideas to different instruments (which is different to transcription) is taken as proof that he was indifferent to the instrumental medium and ignores the ways he adapts those ideas to each instrument. 

This wilful misreading of musical and philological evidence is pointedly fashioned to give a patina of sanctity to the work of modern Bach interpreters, and is wholly grounded in post-Romantic notions of Bach’s counterpoint existing mainly on an intellectual, even anti-expressive plane.

Gould’s approach is refreshingly bereft of an anxiety of influence

The ’81 Goldbergs are an interesting case in point with regards to this singular kind of pianism, as Gould used the same Yamaha grand on which he had recorded his readings of the Strauss op. 5 sonata and the last six Haydn sonatas (both in 1982). The light action demanded by Gould for this particular piano and the uncomfortably close miking result in a recording in which every nuance, thrilling though it is in its performer’s bracing, direct approach, can occasionally come across as a wayward phrasing decision, and vice-versa. 

This basically hyper-clean notion of the piano, for what it disallows in terms of the natural bloom of the instrument, is the musical equivalent of the modern black box theatre and thus carries the same inherent potential for direct, powerful expression. 

For all the talk of Gould as an anti-pianist, his true genius lies in the way he was able to take the same tools, conceptions and techniques of other musicians and use them, as Rob Haskins has observed, “to animate sound out of the piano, as if he is somehow within the sound itself”. This, rather than the accoutrements of artistry which are now the discursive province of a fan base with pseudo-musical literary pretensions, is the essence of Gould’s lasting achievement. Other pianists — and most harpsichordists other than Landowska — seem, in Haskins’s words, “to approach the music from the surface of the instrument rather than from within it”. 

While his work shows historic and artistic influences that we as listeners would do well to consider, Gould’s approach is refreshingly bereft of an anxiety of influence. This freedom results in interpretations that allow, for all their idiosyncrasies, Bach’s voice to shine through. The problem is that, since we have no idea what Bach really wanted to say, it becomes easy to project whatever we want onto them. 

In a classical music culture in which every work is upheld as a masterpiece, every performance as life-affirming, every previously unknown composer the automatic equivalent of Beethoven or Bach, to make even the most cursory deconstruction of such an iconic figure is perhaps seen as tantamount to open disrespect. 

This is even more the case in North America, which cultivates the speciously bright allure of binaries and where the unquestioned Gould shibboleth is particularly strong. If it is true that no man is an island, then indeed no artist exists in a vacuum. A singular figure like Gould is no exception to this. As U.S. cultural dominance begins to wane, the notion that he and the Goldberg Variations are one and the same should finally be put to rest in the graveyard of ideas. Only then can he and J.S. Bach, as only artists can, truly live forever.

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