Happy Birthday, Glenn Gould

September 25, 2012

Glenn Gould was born this day in 1932, which means that we are marking (what would have been) his 80th birthday. Gould is one of the few truly great musicians to have come from my country. He was a fascinating man, a complex man, with a winsome, if eccentric, manner, who had the gift of playing the piano like a — well, like both an angel and a fiend. Not everyone liked his playing, of course, but no-one could ignore it.

Gould is especially associated with Toronto, the city in which I live, and for those who know where to look the place is haunted by him still. His piano sits just outside the performance hall in the CBC building downtown — the hall itself is called the “Glenn Gould Studio”, for that matter. I remember walking one day, a few years ago, in the Beaches neighbourhood and being surprised by a commemorative plaque in the front yard of one of the houses noting that it had been Gould’s house. My wife went into labour with our first child while we were eating in a diner which was a favourite of Gould’s.

As a pianist, he played almost everything, from Gibbons to Webern, but of course he is especially known for his way with Johann Sebastian Bach. I will not claim to be especially enamoured of his Bach playing; he is not the pianist I go to first when I go to Bach; yet I cannot deny that when I do hear him playing this music, it is an absorbing and fascinating experience.

And so: happy birthday, Mr. Gould. Here is a film of him, as a fairly young man, playing the Contrapunctus IV from The Art of Fugue:

(I do not know what is going on with the piano in this film. It is clearly a piano, but it has a jangly quality that is reminiscent of a harpsichord. A prepared piano?)

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6 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Glenn Gould”

  1. Logan Cooley Says:

    So who are the pianists you go to first when you go to Bach?

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for asking: the two pianists whose Bach playing consistently refreshes and delights me are Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia, the former especially for his Well-Tempered Clavier (which, I notice, he has just re-recorded for ECM) and the latter for his Goldbergs and English Suites. I do have a handful of favourite Bach keyboard recordings by a variety of players, but those two are the ones I always come back to.

    Do you have favourites?

  3. Logan Says:

    Thank you. I asked because I’m not at all familiar with Bach’s keyboard music (I’m 17) and wanted a starting point, so I really don’t have any favorites myself.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Bach! I was about five years older than you when I began to learn about classical music, and it has been a wonderful discovery (which is still on-going).

    If I could be so bold as to suggest a good starting point, I would recommend Murray Perahia’s recording of the Goldberg Variations. It is terrific music — the best — and Perahia’s playing is both deeply considered and delightful. No one performance can fully express this music, but Perahia plays it without any distracting idiosyncrasies, and without injecting himself between us and the music.

  5. Logan Says:

    I’ll certainly check it out. You tend, then, to prefer those performances that let the music speak rather than calling attention to themselves?

  6. cburrell Says:

    I do, yes. In popular music one is often just as interested in the singer as in the song, but for me that is not true in classical music. I find musicians who draw attention to themselves annoying.


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