Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guest Blogger - Bren Finan

This is the next post in The Contrapuntal Blog Guest Blogger Series. The purpose is to showcase some of the worlds most passionate and creative Gould fans' creations through photo, video and writing.

Brendan Finan is an Irish composer, piano teacher and technology obsessive. He keeps a blog at www.brendanfinan.com, a Twitter page (@TheMadderHat) and runs a (usually) weekly podcast called Classical Introductions, which uses free and public domain recordings on the internet as a springboard for introductions to the world of classical music. He sometimes wonders what Glenn Gould would have thought of this new world of technology that has emerged since his death, and thinks Gould would probably have been a great Twitter user.

This post can also be found at his blog.

I’ve never understood puritanism.
I have often seen Glenn Gould described as a puritan, and justifiably so. Certainly in his approach to life, and in his taste in music, Gould was extremely conservative, but when it came to the way that he played, I think it’s fair to say that he was the greatest rebel in the twentieth century performing tradition. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was playing music he loved or music he hated; his approach was invariably to tackle it in a way that would remain completely unique. To become almost a second composer.

When Gould played, you always heard something completely new. It didn’t matter if you’d heard the piece a thousand times before, his approach was always unique and interesting. In his hands, listening to the Prelude in c minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier is like receiving two hundred tiny electric shocks. The Goldberg Variations either skate by at an impossible pace or allow you time to contemplate every note. The Brahms rhapsodies feel like they have been deconstructed and rebuilt from the ground.

But, of course, this is all well-known. And you would think that three or four records in, critics would be ready for the fact that Gould played music his way. So reading criticisms of him making music sound like it was his has always made me raise my eyebrows. The staunch complaints about, for example, his organ recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue (which is on my list of favourite Gould CDs) condemned his use of the organ as ‘creaking’ and ‘groaning’, and generally seemed to moan that he wasn’t using it properly. Well, what exactly did they expect? He had been using the piano in a completely unique way for years - why on earth should he submit a conventional organ recording?

When we listen to Gould, we are not really listening to the composer: we are listening to Gould playing that composer’s music, and I really don’t see what’s wrong with that. He did point out on several occasions that there were more than enough faithful recordings of all the established works and nearly everything else that’s been written, and that that frees up (indeed, if memory serves, he felt it obligates) performers to take what liberties they need to make the music new. If this was true in his time, it is doubly so now.

Though his approach was very different from anyone else’s, there were some general consistencies: if he didn’t like a piece, he would often rush through it at an exceptionally high speed as if he couldn’t wait to get to the end, and vice versa in his later years; his touch was always light and very carefully articulated; he used the pedals exceptionally sparingly, and didn’t seem to spare a thought for the long legato phrases lauded by most musicians. But even with these approaches in mind a new Gould purchase is always surprising. Even having an idea of his tastes and styles did not make him predictable, because he always saw things differently.

And really that’s what made him so valuable, isn’t it? He had a different definition of beauty from the rest of us - he loved cloudy skies and gloomy weather, but disliked bright colours; he preferred solitude over company; he was roundly dismissive of many of the established masterpieces of music. But when he saw a piece as beautiful, he could make us see the beauty in it too. Listening to Gould play a piece you’re familiar with is like discovering entirely new music.

Though there is of course something to be said for the ability to listen to many performers’ interpretations of pieces and the nuanced differences between them, there are very few performers alive now willing to give us that break with tradition and that assertion of personality which Gould provided. His insistence on doing things his way has ensured that we have an artist and performer of the twentieth century in possession of unparallelled individualism. It is unfortunate that few others in the classical world have taken up his mantle as ‘extreme’ interpreters, but this is a side-effect of the way we are taught music: that the composer always has to come first.

Rubinstein played Chopin. Kempf played Beethoven. But Gould always played Gould, and for that we are thankful.

1 comment:

  1. Gould.....the Russians thought he was an extra-terrestial. They never heard anything like it. I watched a documentary on Gould playing in Russia. At one concert, there were 3 people who listened to Gould but at intermission, those 3 people called every person they knew and the whole auditorium was so full, there was standing room only. AMAZING!!! Only Gould could do that!