ADULATION / The Gould standard: Glenn Gould died ten years ago. Bayan Northcott argues that he is worthy of the fascination he still inspires

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The Independent Culture
In July 1982, Glenn Gould shut himself away with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and recorded just about the slowest interpretation ever of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. It seems he had been hankering after an alternative outlet in conducting for some time. Whether he would also have carried through his threat to renounce the piano on his 50th birthday that September, we shall never know, since it was shortly followed by his fatal stroke. But we might wonder, if he had survived to his 60th birthday yesterday, what he would have thought of the colossal Glenn Gould Edition that Sony Classical are releasing over the next two years: comprising not only his complete CBS catalogue but many fugitive live, studio and television recordings - all remastered in something called 'High Definition 20-Bit Sound' - and buttressed by a substantial VHS and Laser Disc Glenn Gould Video Collection.

Given his notorious evasion of his own birthday parties, we might wonder still more what he would have made of this week's junketings in his home town. Assuming all has gone to plan, delegates at the Toronto International Glenn Gould Conference will already have flocked to the unveiling of plaques, memorial concerts and exhibitions of his relics and, for a modest donation to the Glenn Gould Foundation, enjoyed a spotlit 15 minutes playing one of his pianos.

From among the assembled panels of eminent Semiologists, Interactive Technologists and Authorities on the Spiritual Dimensions of Sound, they will also have heard papers on such subjects as I Hear, Therefore I Am and Music as an Instrument of Change in the 21st Century. And the conference will culminate tomorrow with the announcement of the Laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize (a bit odd this, considering he regarded competition as the root of all evil) and a collective pilgrimage to his grave. Canada's pride in her most famous cultural son is understandable. But it is difficult to think of another 20th-century performing artist even on the exalted level of Heifetz or Horowitz, Furtwangler or Karajan, who has ever come in for treatment quite like this.

No doubt, a characteristic Gould response would have been to review the entire proceedings under one of the naughty aliases he liked to affect, such as Dr Herbert von Hochmeister - handing the piece to his friend Tim Page to pop into an expanded edition of The Glenn Gould Reader. Yet neither that bemusing compilation of powerful insights and maddening squibs first published here in 1987, nor the anecdotes and documentation of Otto Friedrich's 1989 Glenn Gould biography, quite succeed in focusing what was really unique about Gould's artistry, let alone in what way it relates to the almost transcendental cult that has burgeoned in his name. Not many listeners coming to his work for the first time will find it altogether obvious what all the fuss has been about from Sony's rather miscellaneous selection of material in the initial 12 releases of the Glenn Gould Edition.

True, it includes that famous, fastest-ever recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (SMK 52594) which first shot him to international fame in 1956 - establishing once and for all his uncanny ability to clarify and contrast the unfolding of simultaneous lines through the most complex contrapuntal textures. Yet, had Sony chosen to couple it with a re-release of the utterly contrasting, meditative recording of the same work with which Gould contrived to round off his career in 1982, his underlying purpose might have emerged far more clearly. As an avid follower of the latest developments in recording technology, Gould would certainly have relished the opportunity offered by CDs to flip back and forth instantaneously between opposing interpretations of the same passage - indeed, he seems to have assembled the final tapes for many of his recordings by just such a process. At his best Gould played Bach's solo keyboard music supremely but, the early Goldberg and a couple of fugues aside, the only other Bach reissue in this first batch is a somewhat relentless two-disc set of six of the piano concertos (SM2K 52591).

Meanwhile, newcomers to some of the other recordings - of Mozart and Beethoven, for instance - might find themselves goaded into more indignant questions. What was the point of Gould's sensational retirement from the pressures and unpredictabilities of live concert-giving at only 31, for the potential perfectibility of the recording studio, when he continued to release discs which not only seemed to take a perverse delight in flouting the prescribed tempi, dynamics and phrasing of certain composers, but which palpably retained such blemishes as cross- spliced acoustics from different sessions and his own incessant singing? What in all those endless hours of editing his own tapes was Glenn Gould actually doing? The answer seems to be: searching in his own way for a more fundamental sense of permanence.

In a graduation address to Toronto music students in 1964, Gould recalled a moment in his early teens when his practising of Mozart was interrupted by a vacuum cleaner, and how the music he could hardly hear above the din suddenly 'sounded' better - so that ever afterwards he would set up extraneous noises by turning on the television or something when he needed to memorise a new piece fast. This might suggest the ability, even the need of his contrapuntal mind to follow several things at once. Shut away in the reclusive Toronto pad from which he kept in touch with the world through endless nocturnal phone calls, he would apparently even switch on the radio in order to sleep. But the way he described the vacuum-cleaner experience suggests rather a sense of being put directly in touch - as much through his fingers as his deafened ears - with the basic idea of the piece, its indestructible core-process of note against note.

If this indeed became the central preoccupation of his playing, it would explain his preference for contrapuntal composers; Bach above all, the Elizabethan virginalists he played so beautifully but recorded, alas, so rarely, and among the moderns, Schoenberg and Hindemith. The new releases duly include five of the latter's brass sonatas with Gould's accompaniments (SM2K 52671). It would also explain his almost total disregard of composers more concerned with pianism per se or with poetic effect, such as Chopin or Debussy, and his ambivalence towards composers such as Mozart and Beethoven whose allegiance to pure counterpoint was adulterated, from Gould's standpoint, by their weakness for the excitements of sonata form.

Above all, it would explain his compulsion to approach the same pieces in many contrasting ways, as though the serene essence was only to be apprehended through the synthesis of multiple interpretations; explain, too, his penchant for testing through deliberate distortions - not to mention the simulated vacuum-cleaner effect of his own vocalism - the structural integrity of Mozart and Beethoven. Gould was, of course, a performer of strongly creative instincts, and the new edition is accompanied by a disc of his own music (SK 47184), including his remarkable early String Quartet - sounding like the young Schoenberg on an exceptionally benign day. His playing may have annoyed critical guardians of tradition and scholars of traditional style as much as it has evidently transported mystics and futurologists, yet it surely offers most to like-minded performers - and to composers. At a time when the culture industry would seem to encourage a preoccupation with everything save the creative basics of the art, Gould's selfless, timeless search remains at once admonitory and inspiring.

(Photographs omitted)

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