Sharps & Flats

The stunning Glenn Gould on Bach boxed set of reissues captures the rare instant when performer, composer and instrument meet in perfection.

By Patrick Giles
Published April 4, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Discovering the recordings of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) might be one of the most important moments of any listener's life. No other 20th century performer conveys a musical wisdom so peerless, a communicativeness so all-encompassing and a beauty so unquenchable.

Sony's recent "Glenn Gould Plays Bach" collects 12 recordings and their original art in a handsome boxed set. Gould's original label, Columbia, had some of the smartest cover art in the LP business, and his releases included striking album covers and notes. (I purchased my first Gould LP when I was 16 because the young man pictured, with his long hair, white shirt and supremely graceful face, was so androgynously beautiful that I just had to take it home -- I still have it.) The new collection also features a graceful introduction by Tim Page and reproductions of some of the albums' original liner notes. One of the discs goes even further, doubling as a CD-ROM with complete original notes and multimedia doodads.

Beyond the packaging, the series provides a ready excuse to discover or rediscover Gould at his most astonishing -- playing Bach. Bach's music, written in the first half of the 18th century, is still the apex of musical sound, even if his compositions have often inspired more awe than sympathy or understanding. Virginia Woolf sensed a similar problem with the poetry of Milton, admiring its technical heights ("wonderful, beautiful and masterly") while scraping against the poetry's "sublime aloofness and impersonality of the emotions."

Gould transcended a similar understanding of Bach. When he first performed "The Goldberg Variations" at New York's Town Hall in 1955 (just before recording it for Columbia), Bach piano performance was becoming an armed camp of early-music enthusiasts laying down an orthodoxy of authenticity. They insisted that he be performed on harpsichord, not piano, and played straight and cold. Others preferred a grand-piano style based more on convention than restudy and discovery.

Gould unveiled a Bach beyond both schools of playing, a sublime Bach, both astonishingly virtuosic and unprecedentedly personal. Listening to that first recording of "The Goldberg Variations" remains a jaw-dropping experience. He mingled the charts with tears, quiet attention, even laughter at the world of emotions in this sometimes dryly played music.

It's a supremely crafted performance, yet also elemental: Gould's occasional heavy breathing, mumbling and singing and the clumps of his pedaling sound not like awkward intrusions but contributions from distant wind and thunder. Strangely, the only other artist whose uniqueness resembles Gould's is one who began recording for Columbia a few years after him. Both Gould and Aretha Franklin, at their best, exhibited a startling combination of musical integrity, originality and ability.

Gould quit playing in public not long after achieving international fame. For the last 17 years of his life, he chose to realize his music only in the controlled sound world of the recording studio. That made him a star few admirers heard live, which is unusual for serious fans of contemporary classical performers. But he didn't need the frisson of the concert hall and backstage autographing to retain listeners. He spoke and sang vividly through the piano, in a way that allowed his recordings to enter a listener's emotional life as the greatest books and films do. This wasn't just the assertion of a unique personality: Gould expressed the character of Bach's music and his own unique responses to it.

The new Sony box contains some of Gould's greatest moments: Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," the work that, in solving tonality problems for the keyboard, also liberated the composition and performance of world music; "The Art of the Fugue," from which Gould draws as fresh a palette on the organ as he did with other Bach on the grand piano; preludes and fugues, toccatas, concertos -- samples from Bach's perfect keyboard world indelibly rendered by one of the very few performers for whom the compliment "genius" isn't an exaggeration.

Gould died on Oct. 4, 1982 (a few days from turning 50), of complications after a stroke. That such a protean mind vanished so early devastated music lovers as deeply as the similarly early death of Maria Callas five years before (and as Leonard Bernstein's would eight years later). Like their reputations, Gould's continues to flourish via biographies, a multitape collection of video and TV appearances, his peculiarly personable yet distancing writings and an impressive feature film ("Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould").

But the heart of his music remains his Bach. The 12 albums collected here constantly assert themselves as some of the most unique and essential interpretations ever achieved in classical music, a living record of a rare instance in which performer, composer and instrument met in such a perfect way that it will probably never be surpassed.

Patrick Giles

Patrick Giles writes about music, literature, politics and baseball, and is the author of "Derek Jeter: Pride of the Yankees." He lives in New York.

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