Friday, 22 January 2010

Goldberg, Tureck & Gould

I don't use to listen to music at work, but on the first days of 2010 I have been writing a paper and I needed to isolate myself from my colleagues' conversations. At first I started with jazz music but some days ago Mar told me that she took a CD with J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations from the public library. "Bach, what a great idea!", I thought, because I hold that no music is apter to foster concentration than Baroque counterpoint. After an internet search for the Goldberg Variations I came across Glenn Gould...

The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)(*) for keyboard were first published on 1741 and are named after virtuoso organist and harpsichordist Johannes Gottlieb Goldberg, who probably was its first performer as well. The work consists of an aria, 30 variations and a reprise of the initial aria. Here you can listen to the delicate subtlety of the aria and a little further to the polyphonic brilliance of the first variation.

Goldberg Variations - Aria

The performer on these two recordings is Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who is one of the most celebrated pianists of the twentieth century and one of the greatest interpreters of J. S. Bach's keyboard works. Gould was a quite special character. He was born, lived and died in Toronto (1932 - 1982). His playing was quite remarkable in many senses. He used to play the piano from a very low position, so that he pulled down the keys instead of striking them from above. His eyes were just a few inches above the keyboard and throughout his life he would use a special chair, which his father constructed for him. Gould used to move his arms and his body a lot, swaying his torso almost always in a clockwise motion. He usually hummed while playing, having been taught "to sing everything he played" by his mother, and his recording engineers were more or less successful at removing his voice on the studio. In fact, we can clearly hear his humming on most of his recordings.

Gould shied away from physical contact with other people and always wore a coat, a scarf and mittens, independently of the weather, place and season. Before starting playing he would submerge his hands and arms in very hot water for 20 minutes. He gave few concerts, because he disliked the concert hall, considering it kind of a competitive sports arena. Gould always favoured the sense of control and intimacy of the recording studio.

Goldberg Variations - Variatio 1.

Gould developed an impressive speed and technique, which allowed him to do without conventional techniques such as the sostenuto pedal and to precisely articulate the complexly interweaving polyphony of Bach's works. Gould could play at unimaginable speeds and still maintain the separateness and clarity of each note. Even though his repertoire included all the great composers, Gould never tried to hide his aversion for Romantic composers such as Liszt or Chopin, and he even found an intolerable theatrical superficiality on the latest works of Mozart.

Glenn Gould was an exceptional classical piano performer (**). The only influence from a contemporary musician that he publicly acknowledged was that of pianist Rosalyn Tureck (Chicago 1914 - New York 2003). Rosalyn Tureck is, in many senses, the Queen of J. S. Bach's keyboard music. In fact, she is considered by some critics as unjustly eclipsed precisely by Glenn Gould. Interestingly, the version of the Goldberg Variations that Mar took from the public library was Tureck's, in fact the seventh and last recording of this work that she performed in 1998. It is said that after Tureck finished a Bach performance in a concert hall, the public would rest there in silence, unable to move or to clap hands, mesmerized, knowing that something extraordinary had just happened on stage. (This short documentary about Tureck's influence on American classical guitarist Sharon Isbin shows what I mean, around minute 7:30, but it is worth seeing the whole thing)


Listening to Rosalyn Tureck's and Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations I decided to try to play the piano again, or at least to play it more often, but I guess it's going to be hard to accomplish, because I am at that horrible level where everything I can play is quite boring and the things I would like to play are still way out of my league. A self-teaching person must have a strong willpower, and mine is not the same as it was when I was 15 years old and I started to play the guitar. Moreover, my inability to read music, especially from an F-clef, is not really helping. Anyway, here is my version of New Year's resolutions.

I enjoyed knowing about these two pianists, above all because both had a strong attachment to Baroque music, especially J. S. Bach's. There is something in the polyphonic texture of that epoch with which I associate a kind of return to the origins, renouncing to superficial ornamentations that became fashion in subsequent times. There is something about Baroque counterpoint that attracts me a lot, few musical styles reach so deep into my soul as Bach's. And I think it is just its simplicity, such as the one we find in a bicycle or in a prime lens.

I feel a great tenderness looking at Glenn Gould playing, especially on his latest recordings. Looking at him there, tiny, sitting, like he did all his life, on his chair, worn out by more than 40 years of use, almost hiding behind the piano, delicate, vulnerable. And then, after reaching out for some notes in the air that only he was able to see, he starts playing and extracts the most beautiful sounds out of his piano. Even his humming is pleasant and not at all annoying: sometimes it seems classical music is something wonderful that is on a big big pedestal and that has to be revered, but to me Gould's humming makes a strong point that that is not really this way, and brings us closer to the music others used to stress differences so that everyone can enjoy it.

You can see here the Goldberg Variations in Glenn Gould's recording of 1981. This was the only work of his repertoire that he recorded twice, the first in 1955.

(*) BWV 988 refers to the number on the catalogue of J. S. Bach's works. Now that I can speak German I am finally able to remember what BWV stands for: "Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis", that is, "directory of Bach's works".

(**) One of Glenn Gould's performances of J. S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C Major Number 1 (BWV 870) from Book Two of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" was chosen for inclusion on the Golden Record on board Voyager 1, which is now approaching interstellar space and is the farthest man-made object from Earth.