Glenn Gould, Piano: Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II

Glenn Gould WTC

In his 1955 performance of the Goldberg VariationsGould realized Bach's music on the piano in a way that has never been heard before or since. Indeed, I have yet to hear any other piano performances of this music that exhibit anything like Gould's polyphonic differentiation, relentless rhythmic energy, quicksilver speed, and lucid touch. It's just too bad that hardly any of his subsequent Bach recordings approached this pinnacle. And many, such as his 1960s traversal of the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier, were disfigured by eccentricity and a failure—perhaps even a refusal—to communicate his ideas in a way that makes sense to the outside world.

Though Gould's preludes rarely falter in tempo and the voicing of his fugues remains uncannily accurate for the duration of these four discs, his general interpretations are more like rattled-off renditions than performances. His nervous system remains as highly charged as ever, but there are few signs of the dynamic nuance, subtle rubato, and tonal color that helped make his early Goldberg Variations one of the musical miracles of the twentieth century.

A major problem is that Gould's choices of tempi appear to have become increasingly detached from reality as he aged. While his lightning-fast fingers served the music well in the Goldbergs, many of his tempi come across as ill-conceived in the WTC. Not only are they generally overly rigid but, in certain cases, such as the G major preludes from both books and the B-flat major prelude  from Book II, he does little more than flap his fingers over the ivories as fast as possible; accent, structure, and conception crash and burn on the racetrack. Conversely, many of the more lyrical pieces are lugubriously slow. Often, his conception is clumsy and mechanical, as in the mysterious D minor fugue from Book II, or soporific and rhythmically labored, as in the F minor prelude from
Book I. 

Gould's dynamics and touch are hardly more pleasing in these performances. For example, in the grand C-sharp minor fugue from Book I, his texture is too uniform and his attack too brittle, while his C-sharp major prelude from Book II (one of the more lovely Bach pieces on the piano) is clunky, graceless, and lacking in phrasing. He also has a particularly annoying habit of shying away from the endings, such as in his absurd taperings in the C-sharp major fugue or D major prelude from Book I. Fluffy rolled chords and prissy dimenuendos hardly seem an apt way to conclude pieces of such rhythmic verve and architectural grandeur.

Yes, these recordings seem vastly overrated to say the least. Yet one would be a fool to deny Gould a special place in the pantheon of pianists. As Salieri says of Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus, this wunderkind was no mere "trained monkey." Gould was one of the brightest stars in the pianistic firmament, a once-in-a-lifetime artist and one of the very few to merit the label "prodigy."  It's just unfortunate that he all too often behaved like a bad boy. Still, this WTC recording reveals that even when Gould is at his most tasteless or musically obtuse, he compels you to listen—as I did, almost without interruption. Gould is a "God, he didn't just do that!" type of pianist. Not a so-bland-you-shrug-and turn-it-off performer like Tureck, Schiff, or Perahia. I should be thankful for that, I suppose. I just wish that in his later playing he'd retained more of the vision of the innocent, ubertalented kid he once was and remembered that even a genius ultimately needs to serve his art rather than himself.

Joe's Grade: B-      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016