Later this month - this week in fact - the Glenn Gould Foundation will be sponsoring an international conference in Toronto to mark what would have been his 60th birthday on Sept. 25.
Taking part will be artists and critics from all over the world, attempting to come to grips with the late Canadian pianist's sometimes perplexing vision of himself, his music and the future. But vision is the word, and for those who cannot be there a private reassessment is possible by way of the various recordings and, in one case, video the last year has brought our way.I know. It seems as though we are constantly reassessing Glenn Gould, just as he did the music he played and the way he played it. But it only seems to strengthen his position as one of the most original pianists and thinkers of this century, and one of the few to point the way to the next.
Along those lines, as good an overview as any may be had via Kultur's "Glenn Gould - A Portrait," a 105-minute video documentary of his career also available on a Pioneer Artists laserdisc.
It is something of a sideways overview, combining reminiscences of friends and family members with black-and-white photos of the pianist's youth and color footage of him recording and roaming around Toronto, at one point singing Mahler to the animals in the zoo. (For what it's worth, the elephants sing back.)
Musically we are treated to snatches of Bach's "Italian Concerto," Gould's thoughtful, almost feminine Beethoven "Emperor" and, most tantalizingly, TV performances of Prokofiev and Ravel, neither of whose music did he tend to be closely associated with.
The result seems to me overly sentimental in places, and I'd like to have seen and heard more of his ground-breaking CBC radio and television documentaries (which, happily, Sony has promised us). Whatever else he may have been, Gould was always an interesting and entertaining writer and speaker.
On the other hand it is hard not to be moved by the sight of that pale figure hunched over the keyboard playing his beloved Bach, or of his piano being carted out of the apartment in which he lived pretty much as a recluse in the years between dropping out of the concert scene and his death in 1982.
Had he lived, would he have gone on to become as provocative a conductor as he was a pianist? Probably, in the sense that his valedictory debut as a recording conductor, in Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" on Sony SK-46279, has produced reactions ranging from veneration to critical assault.
At 24 minutes plus, it's certainly the slowest "Siegfried Idyll" I have encountered, even more so than Gould's similarly expansive keyboard transcription included on the same CD. But where there is always something going on there, albeit ruminatively, here the line is so stretched that even the players have a hard time sustaining it.
More successful are his transcriptions of the "Meistersinger" Prelude and "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from "Goetterdaemmerung." The last may be a trifle ornate in places, but never unenjoyably so. And in the songful and majestic "Meistersinger" Prelude Gould has a predictably wonderful time with the counterpoint.
Even greater riches are to be mined from a baker's half-dozen of Music & Arts CDs, which already had 11 previous Gould entries in its catalog.
Included are such concert performances as his legendary Beethoven Third Concerto with Karajan from 1957 (CD-678, with the Strauss "Burleske"); a 1959 Salzburg Festival recital (CD-677) whose Bach "Goldberg Variations" is even more animated than his classic 1955 CBS recording; and the infamous 1962 Brahms D minor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic (CD-682) whose comparatively inward view was enough to prompt an oral disclaimer by conductor Leonard Bernstein before the downbeat. (Here it comes at the end.)
Interestingly, it seems stronger to me today than it did then, though I have heard better transfers. I am similarly impressed with the lyrical strength of his Beethoven Third, into which Gould invariably breathes poetry and life, and that despite some less-than-pristine playing and a notably heavy accompaniment from Karajan.
The appended Strauss "Burleske," with Golschmann, offers a sweepingly romantic view of one of Gould's favorite composers, again projected with unusual clarity and point. And although the Salzburg recital may boast a bit too much nervous energy, that doesn't hurt Schoenberg's quirky Op. 25 Suite or the opening Sweelinck Organ Fantasy, which in Gould's hands proves as architecturally compelling as his Bach.
Even more striking are some of the broadcast performances. Gould's Chopin, like his Mozart, may not be to all tastes. But I would not want to be without the inner voices he finds in the watery second movement of the B minor Sonata (CD-683) or his unexpectedly purposeful view of the finale.
Even his Scriabin on the same CD never goes in for empty gestures. And if you can stand his vocalizing (nearly always a problem in these performances) his Beethoven Op. 31, No. 3 (CD-680) strikes me as one of the most imaginative traversals of that sonata after Anton Kuerti's.
I don't even mind his overly mercurial approach to four Mozart sonatas (CD-680), even if the result is perhaps a bit too hard and unrelenting. The prize among these issues, however, is to my way of thinking Music & Arts CD-679, which couples the complete broadcast from Nov. 29, 1996, (minus the spoken commentary) with the Berg Sonata of March 13, 1969.
Not only does the last combine the best qualities of his other recordings of this piece, being lyrically expansive without compromising the music's density, but it is here joined with five fugues from Book 2 of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" and his enormously persuasive Hindemith First Sonata, similarly Bachian in its cleanliness and rigor but no less deeply felt.
But then, like the vocalizing, that was nearly always a given.