Updated: May 7
Note: This type of entry will become a regular staple for future entries in the weeks and months moving forward. I hope to present a whole range of pianists and other great concert artists, and thus to introduce you, the student, as well as the music appreciator, to some of the greatest artists of our time.
So, where to begin but at the top of the pyramid, with the greatest of them all IMHO (or at the very least my childhood hero)... Glenn Gould!
I am continuously in shock at the number of younger pianists who don't know very much about Glenn Gould. As a preface to the musings below, it is important to keep in mind that one of the premier university-level music programs in North America is named in this man’s honour - The Glenn Gould School
Further to this, one of the best recording studios in the country that also serves as a small recital hall at the CBC broadcast centre - The Glenn Gould Studio, has become a mecca for recitalists and recording artists from all over the world...
Artists internationally hold Gould in such high esteem that they established a $100,000 lifetime career grant in his honour. Former recipients of the Glenn Gould Prize include the likes of Jesse Norman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Leonard Cohen.
Known primarily for his myriad revelations into the music of J.S. Bach, his repertoire was immense and his recording output prodigious. However, he made wonderful contributions to so many other genres. His interpretations of the keyboard works of Schoenberg are second to none, as are his writings and scholarship on the same subject. His recording of Prokofiev’s seventh sonata gained the admiration of many Russian pianists whom, until this point, had held the Horowitz recording up in the highest esteem. He was an ardent audiophile who took an authoritarian approach to his recordings.
It was once explained to me by a former teacher (Rosemary Collins) that “whether you loved him or hated him, by the love of God you had better well consult with him, for he always had something of conceptual import to say”. Perhaps it was Harold Schoenberg, the former critic for the New York Times who in his book The Great Pianists gave the best perspective on Gould the interpreter noting….” that he was at his best infuriatingly brilliant, and at his worst brilliantly infuriating!”
And so here is my countdown, plus links:
Number Ten: Bach - Prelude & Fugue in C Major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier
Okay, this actually isn’t my favourite Prelude and Fugue that he recorded, although it is a wonderful recording. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that we can accurately deem this particular recording to be out of this world - literally. It was included along with recordings of Elvis and the Beatles, as well as a whole host of other earthly artists on the Voyager expeditions launched by NASA decades ago, and is currently hurtling through the far reaches of our galaxy! Somewhere, some alien is just sitting back and soaking in all of the counterpoint!
Number Nine: Beethoven - Sonata Opus 32 #2 “Tempest”
I completely fell in love with this recording when I was in my early teens. Gould's preamble to this live performance gives you a real appreciation for the walking encyclopedia and absolute scholastic genius that he was. The performance, while the tempi can be debatable, is a glowing example of an artist who couldn’t care less what others think, and is completely absorbed in the ecstatic rapture of the moment!
Number Eight: Bach - Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue
Bach was considered the greatest of all organists in his lifetime, and a requisite during those days was for the organist to be highly proficient in the art of improvisation. By all accounts, Bach's improvisations were legendary! (Read for instance about the 6-voice fugue in the Musical Offering https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Musical_Offering)
Nobody understood the improvisatory style, with its incredible paradox of spontaneity and logic, its capricious ebbs and flows, and its architecture, better than Glenn Gould did. And of course, fugal texture could not be left in better hands than his!
Number Seven: Ravel - La Valse
This minefield of a work was written originally as an orchestral piece in 1920 by Maurice Ravel - a French composer's tribute to the legendary Viennese waltz tradition embodied in the works of Johann Strauss, and was soon thereafter transcribed by the composer for both solo and two piano versions. The version you will hear below is Gould's own transcription of the work.
Number Six: Beethoven - Concerto #5 “Emperor” Live with the CBC Radio Orchestra, and Karl Ancerl conducting
No, this is not my all-time favourite recording of this master work, however Gould is on record as saying that if one does not have something new and innovative in which to say, then one should not say it at all. The unusual, and one could even say deliberately slow trills aside, this is a wonderful live recording of Gould, made after he had retired from the stage. He most certainly breathes a new perspective into the Emperor, and the second movement in particular shows an artist completely lost in the beauty of the moment.
Number 5: Alban Berg - Sonata for Piano
An extraordinary performance of this extraordinary work! The Berg Sonata was composed towards the end of the first decade of the previous century, and served as a model for many composers - including Prokofiev to Scriabin. It has moments of exquisite beauty (a rarity for one associated with the second Viennese school), and Gould gives a masterclass in unfolding the ever nuanced variation undercurrent within this revolutionary sonata structure. Note: not for the faint of heart…this type of music is pseudo-Freudian, and challenges the listener to negotiate many complicated harmonic, contrapuntal and textural strata simultaneously.
Number Four: Bach - Two and Three Part Inventions
These works by Bach are nothing short of exercises in perfection, and Gould gives an incredible testament to each. Comprised of 15 Two-Part Inventions, together with a set of 15 Three Part Inventions (sometimes published until the title Sinfonias) Gould presents these in pairings related to key. His conceptions of the C-minor two-part invention, and the D-minor three-part invention are just about as intimate and devotional as it can get in music.
Number Three: Bach - Partita Number 6 in E minor
Next to the Goldberg Variations, this (with the possible exception of The Art of Fugue and the WTC if you are going to play them all...) is surely the next most magnificent edifice in Bach's keyboard output. Each dance is beautifully sculpted by Gould, and the incredible fugal architecture leading back to the return of the principal theme in the first movement is nothing short of extraordinary. An Olympian interpretation.
Number Two: The Complete Bach Concerti, with Vladimir Golschmann conducting
I am simply addicted to these recordings! Honestly, I cannot think of a more unified collaboration where there was such a wonderful marriage between the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra. Each one of these works are definitive statements, and for the love of Pete, I can’t think of them being performed any other way. Enough said!
Number One: Bach - Goldberg Variations
Well…my choice for number one is a tie between the 1955 and 1981 versions. Note: there is also a third version which was recorded live from the Salzburg festival which is also quite excellent!
This is the greatest of the great, played by the greatest of the great! It doesn’t get any better!
In his final recording made just months before his death, Gould was interviewed by the French documentary filmmaker and violinist Bruno Monsaegon, who noted that “the contrapuntal mastery had reached almost terrifying intensity”.
There is a video produced by Sony Classical of the second recording of the Goldberg Variations which one can purchase. I recall hearing a CBC documentary years ago called Glenn Gould and the Japanese Connection, in which a Zen Buddhist monk was interviewed in regards to what Glenn Gould had meant to him. Comparing the two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, the monk articulated that in the first recording - and I am paraphrasing - that Gould was giving the definitive statement of what a great Bach keyboard performance was all about. And in the second recording… he WAS Bach! There you have it - Amen!