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NYT on Gould DVDs

September 21, 2003
Glenn Gould's Alchemy Up Close

ome video was in its infancy when the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould died in
1982, but had he lived longer, he would unquestionably have embraced video
as an extension of what he had been doing for nearly two decades. Gould was
as famous for having given up live performance in favor of recordings as he
was for his galvanizing interpretations of Bach. Soon after he retired from
the stage at 31, in 1964, he began to study the technical side of recording,
and he eventually took complete control of his sessions.

He also had a parallel career making television and radio programs for the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They included solo and chamber
performances of repertory ranging from Bach to Schoenberg, as well as
oddities like Strauss's "Enoch Arden," usually with discussions to set the
stage. Like Leonard Bernstein, Gould saw the power and potential of
television as a medium through which to explain and convey classical music
to huge audiences. And he was one of the few musicians who had both the
imagination and the opportunity to tap that power fully.

Sony Classical, Gould's record label, released a lot of this material in an
expansive VHS series in the 1990's, with volumes devoted to Beethoven and
20th-century music, an ample selection of Bach performances and an
installment devoted to Gould's conducting. But most of these programs have
long been out of print, and until recently, hardly any of Gould's video
recordings were available on DVD. Now a hefty load of Gouldiana has hit the
DVD bins, and much of it comes from the CBC, but those organically conceived
programs remain unavailable.

Instead, the CBC has licensed three recent Gould documentaries — "Life and
Times," a useful and fairly comprehensive biography; "The Russian Journey,"
chronicling his 1957 visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg; and "Extasis," a
maddening festival of Gould worship — to Kultur Video, which has released
them separately and as a boxed set, "The Glenn Gould Collection."

There is better news from EMI Classics, which has released Bruno
Monsaingeon's 1974 television film, "The Alchemist," in its Classic Archive
series. The first of several programs Mr. Monsaingeon made with Gould, this
is the real deal: 2 hours 40 minutes of Gould performing a recital's worth
of music as well as holding forth in interview segments and, generally, just
being Gould, which is to say, an amusing but controlling eccentric.

A lengthy recording session sequence, Mr. Monsaingeon tells us in booklet
notes, was fully scripted, down to which wrong note Gould would play during
a bad take. His acting in this bogus documentary material is amazingly
natural; if Mr. Monsaingeon had not confessed, few viewers would have been
the wiser.

Chances are, a real Gould recording session did not differ greatly. In the
first part of this segment, Gould works on the English Suite No. 1, taking a
variety of tempos and approaches, and commenting on each. "That's boring,"
he says of a stately reading of the first Bourrée, and he immediately
plunges into a faster, high-voltage account. "Too crazy" is the verdict. He
settles for something between, but leaning decidedly toward "crazy."

Later, he takes up Scriabin. To record "Désir" and "Caresse Dansée" (Op. 57,
Nos. 1 and 2), he has his engineer set up microphones at increasing
distances from the piano: the first pair right over the strings; the last,
far enough away that they will pick up mostly reverberance. During playback,
he sculptures the sound, having the engineer fade the various tracks in and
out: a close sound for this phrase, a distant sound for the rejoinder. It's
a bit loopy, but it's the kind of thing that made Gould an object of
fascination in his time and has kept him one in the two decades since.

The recording session is the second of four segments in "The Alchemist." The
first and third also mix music with conversation (not scripted, Mr.
Monsaingeon writes). In addition to Gould's disdain for touring and live
performance, and his theories about recording, the topics cover a range of
composers from Gibbons and Byrd to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

These discussions are punctuated by performances of the Toccata from Bach's
Partita No. 6, the Intermezzo from Schoenberg's Suite (Op. 25), short pieces
by Gibbons and Byrd, Webern's Variations (Op. 27) and Berg's Sonata (Op. 1),
as well as an informal bash at Wagner's "Meistersinger" Act I Prelude. A
substantial program, it is also a reminder of the breadth of Gould's

The fourth part of the film dispenses with discussion and offers a complete
reading of Bach's Sixth Partita.

Except for the Wagner, these performances are complete and thoroughly
focused, and some — the Bach partita and the Berg sonata, for example — have
a visceral power that Gould's audio recordings do not match. Gould was,
after all, a remarkably visual performer. His preference for performing on a
low chair made for a peculiar — and thus signature — posture, which he made
even stranger by hunching over the keyboard or swaying away from it.

Then there was his penchant for using his left hand to conduct what his
right hand was playing. When it was time for the left hand to take up its
own line, Gould would bring it to the keyboard with a graceful gesture that
made his conducting and playing seem a single gesture.

NATURALLY, the performances in "The Alchemist" are thoroughly choreographed.
The movement of the camera and the cutting among angles seem closely linked
to Gould's phrasing, a visual analogue to his tinkering with sonic distances
in the Scriabin. Even the way his fingers move when the camera is on them
appears to have been something he considered.

In addition, most of the performances are filmed against white, as if Gould
and his piano were floating at an idealized remove from the trappings of
concerts and film. The few exceptions, like the Schoenberg performance, in
which one sees the lighting apparatus, are undoubtedly deliberate: Gould's
comment, perhaps, on the artifice of Schoenberg's style. Surprisingly, all
this is more exciting than obtrusive.

The CBC-Kultur set can scarcely compete with this, but it has its moments.
"Life and Times" (1998) offers a trove of rarely seen photographs, film
clips and interviews with Gould and relatives, colleagues and friends. But
the most telling comments are those of Dr. Helen Mesaros, a psychiatrist and
the author of "Psychobiography of a Virtuoso," who argues that some of
Gould's eccentricities — like the fear of germs that led him to wear a coat,
scarf and gloves even in the summer — could be pinned on his overprotective
mother or were rituals meant to diminish performance anxiety.

Some of the material is heartbreaking. Notebooks in Gould's hand show that
he obsessively charted his temperature, blood pressure and glucose levels,
and his friends recall unsuccessful attempts to persuade him that
self-diagnosis, overmedication and a poor diet could be dangerous. It seems
almost unsurprising that he suffered the stroke that killed him at the
indecently early age of 50. But Gould's sense of humor and playfulness are
also examined in this rounded portrait.

"The Russian Journey" (2002) focuses on a moment in Gould's career that has
largely been forgotten, at least in the West. Gould was entirely unknown
when he arrived in Moscow in 1957, the first Western pianist to perform
there during the cold war, and the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory was
only half full when he began to play.

But he so quickly wowed his audience with a Bach program that at
intermission, listeners phoned their friends and insisted that they come to
the hall, which was packed during the second half. Gould also created a stir
in lectures at the Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatories, where he was
supposed to speak about Bach but ended up discussing Schoenberg and the
Second Viennese School, which was out of favor with Soviet officialdom.

"Extasis" (1993) includes interviews with musicians, including the violinist
Yehudi Menuhin, the pianist Anton Kuerti and some younger Canadian players,
as well as critics and friends, all of them enlisted to proclaim Gould's
genius. This grows tiresome almost immediately, and even the occasional
wisps of critical perspective — his Mozart is called what it was, perverse —
fail to dispel the sickly perfume of hagiography.

Worse, the interviews are punctuated by trendily filmed sequences in which a
reader, Jean-Louis Millette, often standing before building-size projections
of Gould (or himself), intones extraordinary nonsense, drawn from Michel
Schneider's "Glenn Gould: Piano Solo": "He courted pain the way one invents
sources. He cultivated misunderstanding the way children enjoy disguising
themselves. He wanted to be possessed by his soul to the point of forgetting
he had a body."

The real problem with these three productions is that amid all this talk
about Gould, they offer only fragments of performances, enough to tantalize
but not enough to invite repeated viewing. Each disc offers one or two
brief, uncut performances as bonus tracks — a Sweelinck fantasy, a Beethoven
bagatelle (Op. 126, No. 3) and the inevitable Bach: the last two movements
of the F minor Concerto (BWV 1056) and the Contrapunctus No. 4 from "The Art
of Fugue."

But this is scant nourishment for anyone more interested in actually hearing
Gould's music-making than in having his genius extolled or his
idiosyncrasies cataloged. Given the treasures in the CBC archives, there is
no reason that imbalance can't be redressed.