Saturday, April 04, 2009

April 6, 1962: Gould vs. Brahms

It was almost exactly 47 years ago that Leonard Bernstein walked onstage and gave a disclaimer, explaining to his audience that the performance of Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto they were about to hear would be unorthodox. Glenn Gould brought with him a radically reinterpreted version of the concerto, with almost complete disregard for Brahms' tempi and dynamics. Lenny "didn't completely agree" with the interpretation, but in the "sportive" spirit of music collaborated with Gould in front of a surprised audience. Of course, with Gould sitting 14 inches off the floor on a rickety chair, one might suspect that the musical outcome might not be the traditional white-tie affair.

Now, for many listeners, the differences were likely academic. For those familiar with the Concerto, I suspect the reactions varied from fascination to disgust. Almost 50 years later, this performance stands as an anomaly, and has been issued only once (without much mastering, which is a shame, but on rehearing it closely there are problems in the orchestra that might be tough to fix...bassoon tuning?).

Shortly after this performance, Gould gave up live performance for good. His venue became the studio exclusively. The studio offered him the level of control he desired to experiment with familiar music without the need to explain himself within the rite of the concert spectacle.

I've been listening through his recordings over the past few weeks. Good Canadian that I am, I have known these recordings for 3 decades, now. But I'm hearing them with fresh ears and a new perspective. Most people encounter Gould through his Bach recordings, and that's a good place to start. His Well-Tempered recordings inspire reactions similar to the 1962 Brahms Concerto, I'm sure. He races through some pieces with a blaze of technique. Other pieces (esp the F minor prelude in WTC I), he stretches out like dough until they almost fall apart. He finds internal melodic lines that emerge like colours and then disappear. Staccato articulation abounds, usually to attract attention to sustained motivic counterpoint elsewhere. For instance, he will often use a pianissimo staccato in the outer voices when a complicated inner fugue subject enters. It draws the ear to the important stuff. At Other times, you get the sense that he just wants to play staccato, damn it.

In the Brahms, his unorthodox choices are made for similar reasons: bring out harmonic progressions or inner lines that he finds interesting that are buried in the score. But is it bastardization of the composer's intentions? Does it matter?

There is something larger going on, though. Think of it this way. Music is interesting because it plays upon our sense of underlying form. Composers work with the "surface" material, exposing the formal structure then layering new structures over top. Those places where a composer (like Beethoven, esp.) challenges the formal structure, breaks it, reforms it...those places are what draw us back to music again and again. The listener's involvement in the music comes from sensing the distance between what is expected and what actually happens. For Beethoven, it was his efforts to challenge the restrictions of classical form. For Brahms, it was a revisiting of earlier forms filled with new harmonic and rhythmic language. For jazz musicians, it is the use of familiar tunes extended by layers of improvisation.

In the Brahms Concerto, Gould challenges some of those local, intra-work forms. He draws attention to transitions, harmonies, internal lines, and form as if he were working in a recording studio. In that "live" studio, he pulls and pushes faders, adjusts EQ, fiddles with tape speed, and manipulates the source material until it reflects new things. From a larger point of view, he is creating a new layer of Brahms that makes the most sense when layered with other performances of Brahms. On its own, it is a curiosity. When seen as a layer combined with other layers (performances by others), it challenges not just the form, but the interpretations of that particular form. His divergence from traditional performances becomes the interesting part of the experience. Without comparison against other performances, it is just an isolated anomaly. One thing cannot diverge on its own. Divergence results from comparison.

So, like his interpretations or not, Gould's lasting effect is to push on our complacency. We may ultimately settle back to other performers (like for me, preferring Aldwell's more fluid, romantic recording of the WTC, or the Zimerman/Rattle Brahms 2), but we do so with a stronger sense of what is possible. Gould's "manipulations" reflect in non-Gould performances because they have become part of our mental model of the music.


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