Glenn Gould From A To Z (by Michael Stegemann)

Don Hunstein / Apr 57


“…in accordance with my sober conviction that no piano need feel duty-bound to always sound like a piano.” The tale of Glenn Gould’s grand pianos is an essential key to understanding his playing. To begin at the beginning, there was an ancient Chickering grand in his parents’ cottage on Lake Simcoe, an instrument that can be seen and heard in a number of early film clips. Gould’s legendary first recording of the Goldberg Variations was made on a Steinway CD 19, a model similar to the piano that Gould himself owned, a CD 174 that was irreparably damaged in transit in March 1957. Not until 1960 or 1961 did Gould find a worthy replacement in the form of a “pre-World War II Steinway which answers to CD 318, and to which I feel a greater devotion than to any other piano that I have encountered” – not that this prevented him from constantly tinkering with the instrument in order to bring the hammers closer to the strings, for example, and in that way make it easier to produce non-legato playing. (Prior to acquiring his CD 318, Gould had for a time fitted his old Steinway with steel T-pins in order to create what he called a “harpsi-piano”, an instrument that he defined as “a neurotic piano that thinks it’s a harpsichord”. At the end of 1971 CD 318, too, suffered an accident from which it never recovered, with the result that Gould’s final recordings were made on a Yamaha CF II that he discovered in New York and that kept him company for the rest of his life.


It was with the Goldberg Variations that it practically all began and with the Goldberg Variations that it practically all ended. Gould’s first Columbia recording in June 1955 was a sensation, the birth of a legend, while his second studio recording effectively brought his career full circle in April 1981. However much the two recordings may differ – and not only in terms of their chosen tempi –, they are really just snapshots in time, for there are also three live recordings dating from 1954, 1958 and 1959, each of which reveals a completely different and no less idiosyncratic vision of the work. Did Gould suffer from sometimes being reduced to the Goldberg Variations? In a late interview with Joseph Roddy, he certainly expressed his reservations: “I think it’s a very oversold work. As a piece, as a concept, I don’t really think it quite works.” Was this one of Gould’s typically provocative statements? Whatever the answer, his recordings remain milestones in gramophone history, iconic readings to which listeners will respond depending on the mood of the moment, sometimes preferring the coruscating pyrotechnical brilliance of the early recording and at other times opting for the “autumnal quality” that Gould himself described as the quintessential characteristic of the later recording.