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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052 / Clavierubung, Part I - Partitas Nos. 5 and 6 (Gould) (1957)
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s first Columbia recording, his classic 1955 Goldberg Variations [Naxos 8.111247], and second, Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas [Naxos 8.111299], were followed by this 1957 rendition of Bach’s D minor Concerto, praised by The New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg for its ‘considerable dash… fine ensemble and musical finesse’. Of Gould’s re-recordings of two keyboard partitas (he was
dissatisfied with the first takes from 1956) one critic registered his astonishment when ‘confronted with the naked imagination and sensitivity of a genius’.The two fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier are further testimony to Gould, the creative artist, shedding new light on familiar works with conviction.
Glenn Gould (1932–1982):
Bach: Keyboard Concerto No. 1 • Partitas Nos. 5 and 6 • Two Fugues
Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould first studied the piano with his mother. He continued his studies from the age of ten with Albert Guerrero at the Toronto Conservatory of Music concurrently studying at Malvern Collegiate Institute. At fifteen he gave his recital début in Toronto and within a few years was regularly appearing on Canadian radio and television. By 1955 Gould was already one of Canada’s outstanding musicians and he then made his American début in Washington D.C. The recital, consisting of Bach, late Beethoven, Webern and Berg, was repeated in New York whereupon Gould was immediately signed to CBS Records with the release of his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, spreading his name around the world.
From this time Gould performed regularly throughout North America, and between 1957 and 1959 played in the USSR, Israel and Western Europe. However, finding performing traumatic and unpleasant he retired from the concert stage in 1964 at the age of 32. He became increasingly eccentric; always fastidious and particular about his health, he found the option of editing a recording to his satisfaction far preferable to performing.
The Concerto for Keyboard in D minor, BWV 1052, was a work Gould played throughout his short performing life. He first publicly performed it at the age
of 23 in Toronto in March 1955 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Sir Ernest MacMillan. He also played it on his tour of Soviet Russia in 1957 in
both Moscow and Leningrad. As his fame grew, the world’s greatest conductors were clamouring to accompany Gould and in 1958 he played this concerto
with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival as well as with Karajan in Berlin and at the Lucerne Festival the following year—a performance which turned out to be Gould’s last appearance on the European concert stage. On his return to North America it is not surprising to
find that another high profile conductor, Leonard Bernstein, wanted to collaborate again with Gould as he had done at Gould’s Carnegie Hall orchestral début in January 1957.
When Gould was signed to Columbia Records in 1955 his first disc was of Bach’s Goldberg Variations [Naxos 8.111247]. He chose next to record Beethoven’s last three Piano Sonatas [Naxos 8.111299], then more Bach in the form of Partitas Nos. 5 and 6. Gould’s fourth released disc was his first concerto disc which coupled Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19, [Naxos 8.111341] with Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, heard here. The term ‘Columbia Symphony Orchestra’ was a nom de disque
used for contractual reasons when an orchestra could not appear under its own name. In this recording it is almost certainly constituted of players from the New
York Philharmonic Orchestra.
The recording was made at Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York City at two sessions in April 1957 and was already being reviewed by the redoubtable
critic of The New York Times Harold Schonberg in December. ‘The results are beautiful…Mr Gould can play with considerable dash, and he does when necessary; but the overall impression is one of well balanced plasticity, of piano merging with orchestra and veering out again, of fine ensemble and musical
Three months later Gould returned to the Columbia studios to continue with the recording of Bach’s last two Partitas, in G major and E minor. He had begun to record these works in February 1956 as the follow up project to his initial disc of the Goldberg Variations. However, Gould was unsatisfied with these recordings, and a period of four consecutive days in the summer of 1957 was set aside to produce the recordings heard here. The G major Partita was a favourite work of Gould who had played it since 1951, and while he played the Partita No. 6 in E minor less in public he was unusually satisfied with his recording of it declaring it ‘A good recording. No party tricks.’ As usual, the opinion of the critics was divided on Gould’s recording of the Partitas. Howard Klein in The New York Times was harsh on Gould and felt that, ‘while Mr Gould’s work is often dazzling, the musical results are far from happy. The short-sighted desire for immediate effects—all the tinkerings with phrases and voices and attacks—makes confections of the agonising E minor Partita. Instead of insight, there is self-indulgence.’ On the contrary, in a far more perceptive review Robert Sabin thought that
when listening to Gould, ‘The keyboard, the instrument melt away and we are confronted with the naked imagination and sensitivity of a genius…in his
recording of the Bach Partitas I bow without hesitation to the magical delicacy, contrapuntal mastery, and exquisite taste and insight of his playing.’ Many critics raised the tired argument of whether Bach’s keyboard works should be played on the piano or harpsichord, but Sabin reviewed the recording from a pianistic point of view and did not even mention the harpsichord. He perceived Gould’s strong points—‘It is not the majesty
or force that Mr Gould emphasises in the Partitas, but rather their wit, their fancy, their poetry and consummate design and detail.’ Most importantly, Sabin made clear how essential Gould’s understanding of structure is in performing these works as well as the ‘incomparable range and variety of his touch.’
Gould recorded the complete Well-Tempered Clavier between 1966 and 1971 but in order to fill out the sides of the 1957 LP of Partitas he recorded two fugues from Book II. Gould’s fierce intelligence led him to constantly study, reason and argue about the music he played. As has already been said, his keen understanding of the structure was of great importance. He also had his considered reasons for the tempos and dynamics he adopted in Bach’s unmarked works. In the 1957 recording of the Fugue in E major he plays it at a stately and calm Andante with terraced dynamics as if
played on the organ or harpsichord. At this tempo the performance takes around four minutes and twenty seconds. Twelve years later when recording the E major Fugue again for the complete Well-Tempered Clavier the conception is completely changed, the subject phrased differently, the tempo much faster, more an Allegro vivace, resulting in a performance that lasts just one minute and forty-five seconds. Gould, the creative artist always searching for the truth, finds in all of these works something not heard before, shedding new light and proffering iconoclastic ideas with conviction.
© 2009 Jonathan Summers
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