Pianist Lara Downes first heard the Goldberg Variations on an LP “as a little girl sitting in my father’s big chair”, played by – who else? – Glenn Gould in his iconic 1955 recording, the same recording my parents had, with the expressive photographs of Gould on the album sleeve. She was, like Gould, like many of us, “transported” by the music, the twists and turns of Bach’s creative process, and Gould’s interpretation and realisation of it.
Inspired by the poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens, ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is, like the poem, an exercise in “perspectivism”, a “re-imagining”, for each piece makes a nod, sometimes obvious, sometimes more tenuous, to Bach’s original, while demonstrating both the permanence of Bach’s great Baroque work, and its ongoing relevance and fascination today. In 2004, thirteen composers were invited to compose thirteen new variations based on Bach’s original. They are not all classical composers, and they represent a diverse and varied group – as do their interpretations. Many share rhythmic, melodic and harmonic motifs with the original, but each is individual, a short stand-alone work.
Catch a phrase or two of some of these ‘reworkings’ and you could easily believe this was Bach’s own creation in their closeness to the original (Fred Lerdahl: Chasing Gold, William Bolcom: Yet Another Goldberg Variation, Ralf Gothoni: Variation on a Variation with Variation), while others bear more than a passing reference to the atonality of Hindemith, Boulez or Messiaen (Mischa Zupko: Ghost Variation, Derek Bermel: Kontraphunctus, Stanley Walden: Fantasy Variation). And just like Bach’s original, there are stately chorales and sprightly dances. This album is almost a palimpsest of Bach: an imaginative and sensitive layering of new thoughts over the original.
The clarity of Lara’s playing ties these separate pieces together with crisp articulation, tender sonorities and arching melodic lines. To accompany the thirteen variations, Lara Downes includes on the album Bach-inspired works by two great American composers, Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss, a fitting tribute to Bach and the lasting inspiration of his music. The final track on the album is the sublime ‘Sarabande’ from the French SuiteV, BWV 816, whose exquisite simplicity echoes the opening ‘Aria’ of the Goldberg Variations.
For more information, please visit Lara’s website. The album ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is available to download via iTunes.
I am very grateful to Lara for giving me the opportunity to review this interesting and arresting album.
Say “Glenn Gould”, and most people will reply “Bach”. Horowitz? Liszt. Schnabel? Beethoven. Lipatti? Chopin. Many great pianists (and even some lesser ones!) have become associated with one particular composer, and this “composer connection” still prevails today: Mitsuko Uchida and Maria Joao Pires are noted for their interpretations of Mozart, Evgeny Kissin for Chopin, Alfred Brendel for the great Austro-German triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (though there are far better interpreters of these composers’ music than Brendel!).
So, why is it that certain pianists become so closely associated with a particular composer, or group of composers? A definitive recording, a well-received concert tour, the praise of respected critics, all these factors contribute. Some pianists choose to devote their life to playing and recording the entire Chopin Etudes and Preludes, or the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (Brendel – three times, Barenboim – twice), while others prefer to play more wide-ranging repertoire. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter seemed able to turn his hand to anything, from Bach to Britten, Handel to Hindemith (he claimed he had enough repertoire for “around eighty programmes”). Claudio Arrau is another noted all-rounder, along with Maurizio Pollini, who is also a champion of the sort of late twentieth-century repertoire many modern pianists of a similar stature won’t touch (‘The Pollini Project’, his personal survey of piano music from Bach to Boulez, draws to a close next Tuesday).
But is it also perhaps that some pianists choose to immerse themselves in one particular composer, or composers, because the music reveals something about their own personality? We talk of so-and-so having an “affinity” for, say, Bach, or Debussy. The word “affinity” originates from the Middle English affinite and the Latin affinitas which is defined as “connection by marriage”. This suggests an even more intimate connection between musician and composer, and perhaps it is that very intimacy which enables some interpreters to really get to the heart, and soul, of the music?
This sounds fanciful: of course, musicians pick up repertoire because they like it, not because they want to marry it! Why learn something you dislike, or because you feel you should? Even at the most junior level, with my students, I would never force them to learn music they do not like: it is wholly unproductive. I have clear memories from my childhood piano lessons of being confronted with the same dreary page of score week after week, my piano teacher insistent that I learn the damn thing. As a teenager, and, admittedly, a rather tiresome, smug, academic teenager, I claimed to love the music of Bach. I’d only scratched the surface of his oeuvre, but there was something about the tight construction of his music that appealed to my intellect. And still does. While at 16, learning a Chopin Nocturne (Op 37, no. 1) for Grade 8, I loathed what I considered its overblown sentiment. Now, I can’t get enough of Chopin, and studying and learning his music is an enormous, if difficult, pleasure (and, no, I don’t consider his music to be full of overblown sentiment any more!). Liszt has been another revelation – a composer I refused to touch until this year, for the same reason as my dislike of Chopin my teens. Again, I was wrong. Meanwhile, much as I love his music, Mozart remains a tricky option, the words of Schnabel never far from my mind “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”, and I’m not convinced I have the mindset for Mozart.
One of my adult students, a rather stiff, anxious woman, had a breakthrough recently learning Bartok (the Quasi Adagio from For Children, which is part of the ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus this year). While other students have struggled with the simple yet highly emotional nature of this piece, this lady has reveled in it, creating the right nuances and shadings, despite her inexperience, and bringing a plaintive poignancy to the tiny piece. So then we looked at ‘Kummer’ (‘Grief’) by Alexander Gedike (ABRSM Grade 1 2009-10 syllabus), and the same wonderful thing happened. She admitted that the sorrowful, minor-key nature of these pieces suited her personality, and it’s true that she plays both extremely well. So, maybe this is an example of the music “fitting” the personality of the performer?
Performers need to balance their own personality with the expression of the composer’s ego: there is, for me, nothing worse than going to a performance where it is all about the performer (Lang Lang, Fazil Say). It just gets in the way of the music and is, in my opinion, hugely egocentric. The best performances are those where the performer stands back from the music a little, with a “passionate detachment”, a little deferential, thus allowing the music (and its composer) to speak for itself. As conductor Mark Wrigglesworth says in his article which, in part, inspired this post, “the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony”. The one notable exception to this is perhaps Glenn Gould, whose personality is, in many ways, all over the music in his muttering and humming. Some people can’t bear this, but to me it’s a sign of Gould’s total engagement with the music, and his enjoyment of it too.
Richter playing the opening movement of his favourite Schubert sonata (G major, D894).
At lunchtime today, I eschewed Sunday lunch with the family, or shopping, which seemed to be what most people were doing, to see the new Glenn Gould biopic at Richmond Filmhouse. This delightful, small cinema, tucked down a side alley off the main drag, is part of the Curzon group, and tends to show art house, European, and less mainstream films. Which is good, because I like those types of films, and I doubt I would have had an opportunity to see the Glenn Gould film otherwise, since it is not on general release, being of somewhat ‘specialist’ interest.
Glenn Gould has always been part of my musical/pianistic landscape, along with Ashkenazy, Perahia, Barenboim and Brendel, for these were the artists my parents heard live in concert and on LP, and I remember seeing the photo of Gould on one of my father’s records, with his trademark cap and long coat. He is probably best remembered today for his extraordinary recordings of Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations, which he recorded twice – first, when he was a young man (in 1955), and later, in 1981, a year before he died. The jury’s still out as to which version is “better”. I would argue that they are simply different: the later version is more thoughtful, and, in some places, just plain weird – that is, if you like your Bach served straight. What most people agree on, however, is that with the music of J S Bach, Gould reveals his true pianistic genius. Listen to him playing, and it is as if a whole choir is contained under his fingers as he directs all the different voices, giving just the right amount of emphasis to each one, so that we truly hear Bach’s intentions and “see”, through sound, the interior architecture of the music (something Murray Perahia also does).
Gould was also famously, or infamously eccentric, and it is probably his personal life and his eccentricities that remain perennially fascinating to fans, musicians and non-musos alike. When I was researching a novel some years ago, in which the principal character is a concert pianist, a young man just starting out on what promises to be a brilliant career, I read a number of books and biographies of Glenn Gould to try and understand what motivates someone to choose such a masochistic career, and what drives the pianist to spend hours and hours in self-imposed solitary confinement with only dead composers for companions. Gould’s obsessiveness, not just about his music, is perhaps more extreme than most, but I think all of us who are committed to the piano, whether as a professional or serious amateur, can understand, to a greater or lesser degree, what drove him to do what he did, and why.
In 2006, Bruno Monsaingeon’s film about Glenn Gould, ‘Hereafter’, came out on DVD. This was, in part, an attempt to get inside the mind of Gould, as an artist and a human being, but also focussed on people whose lives had been touched, in special ways, by Gould’s playing. Monsaingeon was a good friend of Gould’s for over 30 years – this is apparent in the film in the scenes of them working together. More a film about Gould’s relationship with the piano and his music than about his mental state, it is quirky and entertaining, constructed as it is in the manner of a documentary narrated by Gould himself.
‘Genius Within’ goes beyond Monsaingeon’s film to try and penetrate even further the mind of Gould, and so focusses more on his personal life and eccentricities: the gloves, scarf, hat and long coat, even in the height of summer; the repeated request not to have to shake hands for fear of damaging his fragile fingers; his extraordinary attention to detail when recording; his dislike of performing in public; his extreme hypochondria. Constructed from interviews with people who knew Gould, including the artist Cornelia Foss who left her husband to live with Gould for four years, taking her children with her, and interspersed with footage of him playing in the studio or the concert hall, or walking in his beloved Canadian countryside, this is a very intense, beautiful, detailed and moving portrait of a highly complex and profound musical personality. For the really serious musos and Gould fans, the film clips of him playing are fascinating: so much of what he did goes against what most of us are taught when we learn the piano, yet the sound he produced was remarkable and unique. For those who know little or nothing about Glenn Gould, this film is great introduction to his life, and will have you ordering his recordings and reading the biographies of him before you know it. It contains more unseen footage than Bruno Monsaingeon’s film, and is a true work of art in its own right.
Go and see it. And listen to Gould playing Bach….and Beethoven, and Brahms, and Hindemith……
………and if you can’t see it at the cinema, the DVD is released in the UK in March.
An article about Gould’s ‘finger tapping’ technique.
“I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians is to make it differently” – Glenn Gould
Whatever you may think about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould – genius, nutcase, eccentric – his life remains fascinating, partly because he was at once both enigmatic and open. He was extremely articulate about his music, as well as many other subjects, including art, poetry and philosophy, yet his interior life remains clouded by his eccentricities: the pills, the scarves, the funny chair his dad made for him. This new film attempts to go beyond all the myths and misconceptions, and, from what I can tell from the official trailer, will be as insightful, perhaps more so, as Bruno Monsaingeon’s wonderful 2006 film ‘Hereafter’.
For North American readers, you can access the film online until 11 January here. For the rest of us, for the time being there is the official trailer, and then the release of this award-winning and highly-praised film on DVD in the UK in late March (pre-order from Amazon).
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