MUSIC / Realms of Gould: Rosalyn Tureck, Wigmore Hall

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ROSALYN Tureck has often told the story of how her way of playing Bach on the piano began with a revelation at the age of 17. She lost consciousness for an unknown period, recovering it with the conviction that she had to develop a new technique. Perhaps those people (and there are many) who hear only relentless pedantry in Tureck's interpretations need such an epiphany to appreciate what she does. The late Glenn Gould, 18 years Tureck's junior, acknowledged her influence: 'She was the first person who played Bach in what seemed to me a sensible way . . . It was playing of such uprightness, to put it into the moral sphere.' Tureck has confessed that on one occasion she mistook a recording of Gould's playing for her own.

Yet while Gould's recorded legacy, with his wild and not always wonderful extremes, has attracted growing admiration, Tureck remains rather unfashionable, not quite respectable in some quarters, though her performance of the Goldberg Variations at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday was packed out.

It is easy to forget how bold and original is the approach she developed more than 50 years ago. Time and the inevitable vicissitudes of a long career have not shaken her blazing sense of commitment or persuaded her to trim her sails to the prevailing winds. And on Tuesday her technique seemed as secure as it ever was, except for what I took to be uncontrolled or unintentional accelerations at one or two points.

The difference between Tureck and Gould is that, although Tureck was trained as a virtuoso pianist and used to play Brahms and Beethoven, not to mention Schoenberg and Copland, she never plays out of expressive whim or for pianistic effect. She uses all the gradations of volume possible on the piano with a composer's sense of orchestration, but there are no romantic nuances, and her pedalling is purely functional, serving to assist articulation.

If that sounds austere, it was: and long. The 30 variations, with the Aria at the beginning and end, lasted about 105 minutes, including a short break before the French Overture, which comes halfway through. The unusual length was partly because all the repeats were observed, but also because tempi were slow. The Aria, or theme, itself was so slow it seemed viewed under a microscope, larger than life, as if to establish a sense of the monumental. Yet there was character aplenty in Tureck's variety of articulation. No note was left to its own devices, and that made listening extraordinarily demanding, yet gripping at the same time. Some variations, played with such stentorian emphasis, almost bullied us into attention; there was a decidedly dour Gigue, and the triplets in Variation 11 were so plodding, they failed to be recognisable as triplets until halfway through. But Tureck's deeply carved ornaments are uniquely splendid, her grand attack in Variation 14 and the opening of the French Overture, and even her triumphal rather than lusty manner in the Quodlibet (usually considered a humorous piece) were utterly thrilling.

In a work of such scope, it would be surprising not to find some interpretative decisions odd or even disagreeable; but at least Tureck acted on her decisions without a flicker of doubt, and her confidence in every detail, her unfailing clarity, and the sheer force of her concentration made for a compelling musical journey.