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A Glenn Gould Survey: The Music Through 1750

By John Stone

About the 'Art of Fugue' you may also read:

An enigma resolved: the Bach's Art of the Fugue by David Peat (on Hans-Eberhard Dentler)

Glenn Gould Discourses on Fugue: Watch and Learn by John Stone


Search for sheet music on the Art of Fugue

The Bach's Art of Fugue in MIDI files

The Canadian Glenn Gould was, for a while, the James Dean of the piaNo. Smitten girls, drawn to his disheveled good looks and rebellious image, snapped up his groundbreaking 1955 LP recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations that featured a cover with 32 photos of the 23 year old prodigy, shown transported, ecstatic, dancing, conducting himself, singing, even playing the piaNo. By the release of a 1981 recording of the same work (which would turn out to be his last), Gould had inadvertently fostered another kind of image: brooding, bloated, staring at his listeners from an LP jacket with a magisterial and piercing gaze, he was now an eccentric genius, a freakish hypochondriac with as many idiosyncrasies as a piano has keys. But even he did not fathom the depths of his own popularity: his untimely death from a stroke in 1982 at the age of 50 was cause for a national and international outpouring of grief. The world had lost another icon.

Gould's artistry was always appreciated in his time by fellow musicians, critics, and devotees of classical music. But this appreciation was also colored during his life by the sensation that surrounded his youth, the scandal that greeted his decision in 1964 to cease all concertizing, and the noisy chatter responding to his idiosyncrasies throughout the remaining years he devoted to studio recording. Two decades since his death, and the dross and drivel attached to his public and secluded life have mostly fallen away. What remains is a general critical consensus that Gould was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century.

He was a super-intellectual when intellectualism was faddish (where now, the pendulum has swung the other direction, at least in America. ) His writings show him to have been a prodigiously and passionately well-rounded and well-read man, concerned as deeply with the past as with the future. His prediction (and hope) that concert-giving would subside to recording has not panned out, but his vision for technology and all aspects of sound recording and electronic communication has proven entirely prescient.

Gould's outlook in everything was so consistently thought through that it bordered on a kind of moral code. His Lutheranism; general aversion to the Romantic composers, piano competitions, the cult of the virtuoso and public performance; his reverence for contrapuntal masters from Gibbons and Bach to Schoenberg and Hindemith; his penchant for Wagner and Richard Strauss; his solidarity with the common man (more than with aesthetes); and love of solitude and the northern, barren hemisphere- all these inclinations and disinclinations form a coherent logic. Indeed, coherent logic of design was precisely what Gould sought in the music he chose to play. He is celebrated above all for having been able to put his theories into practice- for showing us through his performance the skeletal structure of a given composition.

Ironically, for someone who fought against the tyranny of the performer/celebrity over the music, Gould as pianist has achieved one of the most indelibly celebrated names in classical music history. People speak of Gould's Bach and Gould's Beethoven, subverting the primacy of the composer as genius. The liner notes for any given disc in Sony's vast Gould catalogue contains zero information about the music or composers: it is all about Glenn Gould. But this reversal has become more and more the norm: people will often search out recordings, say, by Leontyne Price, Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, and Sviatoslav Richter less for the music than for the artists interpreting it. Gould is one of the few performers who does, however, meet the composer as an equal, with his titanic mind, artistry and technique up to the interpretive task of re-creating the music at hand.

Still, Gould is not always the most trustworthy conduit of the composer's stated intentions. This is particularly true with the post-Baroque composers he played, but is even the case with his readings of Bach. Indeed, his famous eccentricities (e.g. his humming audibly while playing, the squeaky bench and custom Steinway he used, his extreme tempi choices) have made for many Gould detractors. I often recommend that one supplement one's Gould recordings of a given piece with more standard approaches, so that one not get overly used to his idiosyncratic rendering. That said, I am keenly aware of how much we are in debt to Gould. To take a single instance: before him, the keyboard works of J. S. Bach were performed and recorded on harpsichord, or if on piano, then with schmaltzy use of sustain pedal and Romantic idiomatic devices. Gould managed to keep his Bach performances on the piano abstract yet earthy, ever tasteful and lucid. I love Gould's Bach, but I also love Bach's Gould.

Note: The following guide (Part One of Three) represents a personal tour of Gouldiana- CDs, books (by and about the man), and films/videos. Part One surveys the recordings through the Baroque period. Part Two will feature the rest of the Gould catalogue, ranging from the classical and early Romantic periods (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven) through the 20th Century works (by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Krenek, et al.) Part Three will concentrate on the books and videos Gould made or that were made about him. A star * indicates my strongest recommendations.


Highest Recommendations

Who was Gould's professed favorite composer? J.S. Bach? Wrong. Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss? No. On several occasions (in interviews and his essays), he stated that the composer he held in highest esteem was the Englishman, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

1. Consort of Musicke By William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons
* This disc represents perhaps the only recording on piano you will find of this music (Tudor English and Dutch counterpoint), traditionally the provenance of harpsichordist and virginalists. Gould is at his most relaxed and seems to be enjoying every moment of the process, opting for muted, even keeled interpretations that are exceedingly elegant and charming. His ornamentation is exquisite, and he is permitted here to show off some of the sweet wonders of this music (e.g. trills on a single note) that died out with the advent of Baroque idioms. This is a favorite recording, culminating in one of the great treasures of the Gould legacy: a rendering of Jan Sweelinck's contemplative and pyrotechnic Fantasia in D that is just breathtaking beautiful. A pity Gould never returned to this territory again.

2. Salzburg Recital: 25.August 1959
* Gould opened one of his most extraordinary public performances with the same Sweelinck Fantasia. In this case, his performance (lasting a full two minutes longer than the other) is no less brilliant; but it is entirely becalmed and introspective. Next in line was Schoenberg's Suite für Klavier Op. 25, a piece that combines the composer's fully developed serialism (twelve-tone system, part of atonality) with Baroque dance-music structures such as Gavotte, Menuett and Gigue. From Sweelinck to Schoenberg is quite a leap, but the connections are there: both were composers of high structural integrity, and Gould is at his finest with exposing these blueprints, making sense of both works whose potential for alienating the modern listener (for different reasons) is perilously high. The Gigue is a particular triumph. Gould followed the Schoenberg Suite with Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, KV 330 (in honor of Salzburg?). Gould was often at variance with Mozart, especially those works by the composer Gould felt were overly facile from a design and linear standpoint (the main charge: the left hand Alberti basses supporting 'periwigged' melodies.) None of Gould's antagonism shows in this delicate and loving reading of a popular favorite. He even brings out inner voices where there are seemingly none written, gracefully grafting onto the rococo structure a perceived counterpoint Mozart would at any rate adopt wholeheartedly in future works. As if all this weren't enough, Gould concluded his recital with Bach's Goldberg Variations, as usual, without the repeats for the first section of each variation. People often argue back and forth over which studio recording of this work is the better, the debut 1955 or the swan song 1981 version (more on these below.) Not many people know about this live 1959 version, but it remains my personal favorite. It actually represents a perfect middle ground of the other two: where the 1955 is dazzling but lacks a sense of the whole structure, and the 1981 is all structure, but is quite labored and ponderous, the Salzburg reading is effervescent, probing, spontaneous, and yet shows through its restrained tempi relationships an awareness to the work's totality. There are quite of few noticeable errors on the keyboard, but this does not detract from the greatness and inspiration of this monumental and assured achievement.


Johann Sebastian Bach:

3. The French Suites
* For a while, this magnificent recording was unavailable in an affordable format; CBS Records issued it on a single disc (the edition I possess), but then Sony distributed the Suites in a full price box set. The CBS version has notes about Bach's music, where Sony as usual markets the entire package as a Gould item. Now, however, Sony has re-issued these Suites, and indeed, much of the Gould-Bach discography, on a mid-price edition with the original LP covers. Of all the Gould plays Bach recordings, this remains a favorite. Dating from 1972-74, Gould is at his least idiosyncratic and most relaxed. Similar in sheer elegance and mastery of articulation to the Byrd/Gibbons recording, these performances are remarkably fresh and pure. The sound quality is superb, and for those disturbed by Gould's humming, it is for the most part inaudible.

4. The Goldberg Variations, 1955 edition
Gould's debut recording is a landmark in the pantheon of Bach recordings. Infused with youthful energy, bravura technique and hair-raising turns of drama and emotional quality, it marks a completely winsome meeting of two cerebral and passionate minds, Gould's and Bach's, that would forever change the way we encountered either. Gould was particularly adept at bringing out multiple voices and lines in music, so his marriage in performance with Bach is a natural and fortuitous one, with results that are always enlightening. Gould 'corrected' in his 1981 recording what he took to be the unevenness in meter approach in his debut album, but I gravitate to the earlier one of these framing statements on counterpoint. The earlier breathes a rarefied and light air, punctuated by appropriate and profound pathos in the minor key variations, where the later one somewhat suffocates itself in reflection and premeditation.

5. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (2 CDs, Sony 52600)
There seem to be two Goulds in the recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (1962-5) and Book II (1966-71). The former meets the challenge with joy, inspiration and gusto, while the latter seems strangely reluctant and annoyed to be involved in the whole process. Apparently, Gould had little patience for the Preludes that prefigure each Fugue, ever drawn as he was to fugal counterpoint over the gallant styles that Bach often adopted for his preludes. In fact, he often performed the fugues without their accompanying preludes for television presentations and the suchlike. Still, he approaches Book I with all the intellect, clarity of line, and subtlety of execution that he ordinarily brought to bear on his Bach interpretations. Neither Gould's Book I nor Book II could be considered standard interpretations, what with their often unorthodox tempi. I agree with Gould, however, that a given piece of Bach has a fairly wide window of tempo within which it can succeed, so intrinsically well wrought are the compositions. What passes for agreeably unsentimental pizzicato playing throughout Book I is pushed too far in Book II, resulting on the whole in a surprisingly ungainly and aggressive performance.

6. Two and Three Part Inventions
Recorded in 1964, one month before his decision to leave the stage for good and focus on studio recordings, this is one of Gould's most charming and inviting interpretations of Bach. The works, intended for pedagogy, are Bach's practical primer for the study and performance of contrapuntal work. Scored for two and three voices, in nearly every key and mode, they transcend the musical instruction raison d'etre. In Gould's hands, they become the most exquisite things, replete with the pathos, humor, elegance, and excitement attending Bach's more overtly 'professional' music (e.g. the English Suites or Partitas). Two small complaints: Gould insisted on using a piano that was, from the technician's standpoint, unsalvageable, and the result is a few notes in the treble clef that hiccup when played. Eventually, one gets used to them, and oddly, they add to the charm of this inspired recording. Also, Gould has elected to play the set in an unconventional order, against Bach's own chromatic-based one. Again, not a major issue. Of particular note is the final selection of the CD, the Sinfonia (three part) 9 in F minor. This is one of the most dissonant, introspective and celestial works in the Bach canon, and Gould approaches it with tremendous reverence and devotion. This is music and performing of the highest intellectual and emotional order.

7. Partitas/Preludes and Fugues (2 CDs, Sony 52597)
Now available separately on two CDs at mid range prices and with their original covers, these Partitas have formerly been coupled with numerous miscellaneous preludes and fugues of Bach in Sony's Glenn Gould Edition. While more expensive, the Sony set is certainly worth it, these added works being consummate gems less frequently recorded by pianists, and that Gould delivers with utmost panache, charm, and clarity. The Partitas are some of Bach's most wondrously achieved works for the keyboard, combining contrapuntal rigor with freer gallant elements in an ingenious blend that is always refreshing for its contrasts. Recording in the late 1950s and early 60s, Gould is at his best in these performances, managing to strike a balance between a light nonchalance and total conviction that makes this version stand out among the many excellent others (e.g. by Richter, Schiff, Goode) as one of the definitive statements in Bach performance.

8. The English Suites (2 CDs, Sony 52606)
Recorded between 1971 and 1976, Gould's renditions of the English Suites are minutely observed and ravishing in their attention to detail, ornamentation, and mood. As always, Gould's consistent pulse contributes to a marvelous feeling that this music is emanating like a stream from an endless source, spilling out at times in slow rivulets, elsewhere, in faster torrents, but always moving forward. These are among my favorite works of Bach, and they are suitable for nearly every imaginable occasion in daily life (though, come to think of it, the same could be said for the Goldberg Variaitons, French Suites, and Partitas.) There are pastoral and stormy episodes (for example, in the generally solemn Suite in D minor), moments of mirth and sadness, stretches of fugal and canonic complexity framed by exquisitely lyrical and organically evolving episodes. Gould is masterful in adjusting his attack and phrasing to suit the variegated moods conjured by this abstract, poignant and life-affirming music. He has some excellent competition for our ears: Andras Schiff's lush and tasteful performance of the Suites is extremely compelling, as is Murray Perahia's recent foray. No sense, then, in comparing one great with another.

9. Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Sonatas for Gamba and Keyboard (2 CDs, Sony 52615)
* This is one of my favorite Gould recordings, owing partly to the artistry and imagination of the performances, but also because the compositions rank among my favorite in the Bach oeuvre. Gould is joined by two phenomenal artists in particularly inspired pairings: Leonard Rose for the 3 Gamba (cello) Sonatas and Jaime Laredo for the 6 Violin and Keyboard Sonatas. These are works in which each player has absolutely equal importance in the composition (with no sense of a continuo instrument supporting a soloist). As such, collaboration is key- a blending of personal vision to achieve a desired goal. I have heard few recordings of chamber music where the musicians were as united as these are here. Gould's feathery and spontaneous touch in the slower movements acts as a poignant counterpoint to the lyrical bowing of the strings. Among the single most beautiful occasions of music making I have ever heard occurs in the Adagio of the F Minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata. I can't tell which is more heartbreaking, the violin's achingly beautiful and searching double stops or the delicate arpeggios that in Gould's hands sweetly dance around them? For this movement and others of comparable pathos and beauty (e.g. the Siciliano from the C Minor Violin Sonata), I urge you to drop everything and find this disc!



1. J. S. Bach: Toccatas (2 CDs, Sony 52612)
The Toccatas, fairly early works of Bach's, are evidence that the composer did not sprout from the head of Zeus, a fully formed genius. These fascinating, often bizarre and highly improvisatory works contain many hints of Bach's greatness, but also of certain ungainly qualities. The sequences (patterns of the same music repeated in different keys) tend to modulate for very long (aimlessly) before finding their home. Gould, who rather disliked these pieces, is at his best when the music has motivic force (e.g. the fugal finales to each Toccata). Elsewhere, he allows himself to get rhythmically lost in Bach's maze of recitatif-like episodes (of which there are many). Still, there are many inspired gestures on Gould's part, and even if this music is less tightly structured than Bach's later works, Gould still has the uncanny ability to convey its loosely implied architecture. Interestingly, these are quasi-Romantic works in which Bach was more 'modern' than later in his career when he devoted himself further and further to explorations of (generally outmoded) fugal craft. Two drawbacks for this recording: Gould hums louder than usual and the tracking disregards the multiple sections of the works, with a single track for each of the seven Toccatas.

2. Bach: Concertos For Piano and Orchestra Nos. 1-5 & 7 (2 CDs, Sony 52591)
Glenn Gould's philosophy of the solo concerto (akin to his animosity for the cult of virtuosity) runs counter to pretty much the entire musical establishment as constructed by performers, conductors, critics and audiences. Gould's logic runs thus: A) The solo concerto format pits soloist against orchestra in an antagonistic competition drafted by (chiefly Romantic) composers, egged on by conductors, and watched with bloodlust and misplaced enthusiasm by the public. B) Competition is anathema to art. C) Solo concerti are therefore anathema, or as Gould would even say, 'immoral.' Gould's ideal for approaching the solo concerto was to have the soloist absorbed into the body of the orchestra, playing with and not against them. His revolutionary idea also saw to it that the soloist maintain dynamics that would not overshadow the collective, and that in the case of Romantic concerti, all tendencies toward portentous rubati be eliminated in place of a regular, uninterrupted beat for each movement. When Gould was successful in getting Leonard Bernstein to adopt his radical principles in a 1962 performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto in D minor, the critics and public all but threw tomatoes at the artists. Indeed, Gould's treatment of Brahms through the lens of Baroque practice and aesthetic is so idiosyncratic, so removed from anything like a standard, that I don't recommend it as a first recording of this work. Still, it stands up as an interpretation: as Bernstein said to the audience before the concert, Gould's vision is valid. However, the recording quality is so poor, and the sound so frequently punctured with coughing and rustling noises, that the recording is more of an 'historical interest' item than anything.
When Bernstein conducted Gould in a 1957 mono version of Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D minor, the results were entirely more propitious. This can largely be explained by the facts that Bach predates the soloist/orchestra struggle, that he was only at the very dawn of the cult of the soloist hero, and of course, he is a Baroque composer, hence no need for Gould's proposition of a Baroque filter. Gould does not, however, become submerged in the fabric of the strings. The piano and strings form an ideal partnership, forming a seamless blend of voices, lines, counterpoint- everything enhancing the awesome power and intensity of this concerto. In this and the other concerti (conducted by Vladimir Golschmann), the even tempi (one can assume, dictated by Gould) are standard, with no hint of the idiosyncratic tempi associated with the pianist's solo performances. Gould's performances are of crystalline clarity and focus, brimming with emotive intensity in the slow movements and forceful conviction in the allegros. The only complaints: the set is not complete (missing two concerti) and Gould occasionally takes some serious liberties with the notes as written, particularly in the Andante of the G minor concerto. Otherwise, this is an easy and sure recommendation.

3. Bach: The Art of Fugue, Excerpts
The key word here is excerpts. The set is missing two fugues and four canons that would have made this a complete Art of the Fugue. The CD features separate recording sessions, beginning with Gould on organ (his only recorded effort on the instrument) for the first nine fugues and featuring him on piano for fugues 1, 2, 4, 9, 11, 13 and 14 (the incomplete, final fugue). Gould played with a (not surprisingly) anti-organistic style, almost as though he wanted to find an inner harpsichord latent within the bellows. Unorthodox as the attempt was (it didn't please any purists), it does help in clarifying the contrapuntal lines, always essential in Bach. The stops he used were generally pure, except the magisterial but muddying one he employed for the 6th fugue. The highpoint is his piano performance of the last fugue: following the lead of this huge scale, quadruple-themed masterpiece by Bach (the final theme being lost), he begins with introspective calm and radiates ever outward. Gould seems genuinely transported to another world, and we are brought there with him. (Note: For a complete Art of Fugue on keyboard, I recommend the version by Charles Rosen, on the Keyboard Album).

4. Handel: Suites For Harpsichord Nos. 1-4
Considering Gould's penchant for pointillistic, non-legato playing, the idea of him playing harpsichord is not farfetched. The circumstances that led to this venture are serendipitous: Gould's beloved Steinway CD 318 was damaged in transit, and his scheduled recording session for the Handel Suites was put in jeopardy. Gould had the idea to play these on the instrument for which they were anyway written, and without further ado, he recorded this singularly charming and adventuresome recording. The music itself is a marvel of diverse moods, with insanely dark passages juxtaposed with the brightest, most cheerful (even manic) movements. Gould uses the numerous stops (e.g. the lute, the octave) and double keyboards of his instrument to further heighten the disparity of the music's moods and textures. His technique is flawless, as usual, and he delivers a dynamic and brilliant reading- idiosyncratic, yes, but spicy and infectious too.

5. J. S. Bach: Italian Concerto, Fugues on Albinoni Themes, Scarlatti: Sonatas
This is a winning compilation of assorted compositions by Bach, Scarllati, and C.P.E. Bach. I could live without the C.P.E. Bach inclusion (a Haydnesque sonata). Further, the Gould renditions of the Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasy (missing its fugue, for no apparent reason) are not up to snuff. But then, Gould practically loathed these two works, the former for its gallant trappings, the latter for its lack of structural integrity. You can sense his contempt for these works through his abrupt dispensing with episodes and his occasionally harsh attack. These drawbacks aside, there are many small wonders to be discovered herein. Above all, there is the 'Aria variata alla maniera italiana' (BWV 989), a rarely performed piece of juvenilia (and the only other theme-and-variations composition of Bach's aside from the Goldberg). It is a work of considerable beauty with moments of great depth, and Gould is at his reverential and spontaneous best. He reaches comparable peaks with the other miscellaneous fugues (e.g. BWV 917), offering up his signature 'X-ray' vision upon these rarely performed gems from the early years of J. S. Bach. (who was 'not' Gould's favorite composer...?)

You may be also interested in:

Introduction to J.S. Bach in His Library, 1749

On Bach's Art of the Fugue

Road Map for a Fugue

A Portrait of Two J.S. Bach's

Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach

Two Reasons Man is Superior to Machines: Bach and Gould

A Glenn Gould Survey: The Music Through 1750

Glenn Gould Discourses on Fugue: Watch and Learn


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