Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier: Glenn Gould

Today we listen to possibly the most mediocre CD in my entire classical music collection, Glenn Gould's recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
Glenn Gould, piano
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
Sony Classical, 1971/1993
It would take a nearly a century for his ideas to catch on, but aspects of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier would eventually come to revolutionize Western music. With this work, Bach promoted a new way of tuning keyboard instruments, using a twelve-tone chromatic system rather than the "meantone" system that predominated at the time.

Furthermore, this enormous collection of preludes and fugues heavily influenced composers--including giants like Beethoven and Mozart--for hundreds of years to come, as it established some of the key ground rules for harmony and counterpoint.

And the music is hypnotic. Well, at least it should be hypnotic. Only this two-part, four-CD collection has a problem. And the problem is the performer. Glenn Gould may be one of the 20th century's most highly regarded pianists, but he plays this music with open derision. The performance may be mostly mistake-free, but it is prickly, uninspired and ham-handedly phrased.

But by far the worst and most distracting feature of this recording is Gould mumbling, moaning and singing the parts along with himself while he plays. It is so distracting that I couldn't help but laugh out loud during the recording (and believe me, it wasn't a funny, ha-ha kind of laugh). This kind of error should result in the recording engineer's summary expulsion from the industry.

This isn't Mauricio Polini muh-muh-muh-ing along with a Beethoven piano sonata. That, at least, is real music played with honest passion.

But these Bach preludes and fugues need to be played with at least some passion and creativity, or they begin to sound like computer generated music. This is complex music that might be interesting on a compositional or harmonic level, but it sounds emotionally bankrupt if it's played by a performer who's sounds like he just doesn't want to be there.

Played by a performer who sounds like he just doesn't want to be there. Hmm. Kind of like Glenn Gould sounds on this very disc.

One more point about Gould's open derision to this music. In the liner notes to this CD author Michael Stegemann illustrates--with great success, by the way--the "undisguised lack of enthusiasm" Gould had towards doing a recording project of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. Gould calls the preludes "prosaically prefatory" and he even compares the Well-Tempered Clavier to Muzak!

Here's a quote from the liner notes that you can interpret as you wish. I read it to be profoundly condescending:

"There is a real Muzak-like significance to the nature of the fugue itself... I would like to think that one could dip in and dip out of and experience of music just as easily as you get into an elevator (with a bit of Mantovani for 35 seconds) to get to the 19th floor."
--Glenn Gould

Ouch. This explains why Gould was so reluctant to make these recordings in the first place.

And if you study the dates of the recordings themselves, you'll see how this pianist, who is photographed in various recumbent and/or contemplative poses in this CD collection, took his time and dragged his feet plenty during these recording sessions. Most of the tracks have multiple recording dates, dates that are years apart in some cases. And the entire recording of Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, about 103 minutes of music, was done over more than four years.

That is some serious finger-dragging, and it also helps explains Gould's limp and uninspired performance.

I'm sorry that I'm running posts on two disappointing classical music CDs in a row! But when you are systematically working through CD collection, you're bound to catch a few losers here and there. After all, it's impossible for all of your discs to be above average.

But if there is one thing you should take away from reading this post, it is this: don't buy this disc. Look for a performance by somebody who actually gives a damn about the music.

Perhaps consider instead Wanda Landowska's extremely well-regarded recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier on harpsichord, available in two volumes.


MyMusic said...

Ouch! I'm secretly pleased that this recording is rubbish. I've got Gould's organ version on a dusty old tape somewhere, and it was dreadful too. Gould is so often acclaimed as an ace Bach performer, it's refreshing to read a real opinion from the heart.

Daniel said...

Glad to hear you're on the same page. I was shocked that this disc was as middling as it was.


David Conde del Río said...

you have no idea of what you're talking about

Eli said...

:S I love Gould, but he certeinly was and odd person... I prefer his first recordings from th etime before he got pretty mad.
When I started reading you opinion I almost had a heart attack, but I finished reading, and you are sooo right... sad but true! (just don't tell my piano teacher or he'll kill himself ahahaha)

Anonymous said...

you probably don't like punk rock, do you? Glenn Gould was a genius, and he did not care if you thought his humming was annoying.

Daniel said...

I love punk rock. It's just that punk's always loud enough to drown out the humming, mumbling and moaning.