Glenn Gould: …And Serenity

Glenn Gould
...And Serenity
Sony Classical

Sony’s latest attempt to capitalize on the increasing after-life popularity of Glenn Gould has resulted in a hash of disparate pieces. This should come as no surprise, given that the foundation of the compilation rests upon nothing more than a murmuring once made by the artist, “the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the grateful, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” That the binding force of the chosen pieces is their projection of the state of “serenity” is laughable. It baffles the mind how anyone could think that throwing together arbitrary pieces that are slow and somewhat melancholic in nature could be packaged and sold as a product with no consideration to the unity of the musical material. Granted, while each piece is autonomously serene by nature, any cohesion between them is ruined by the huge leaps that exist in musical style. Jumping from the Baroque period to the Romantic and touching on the Modern, the compilation manages to by-pass the Classical period altogether.

The compilation opens beautifully with Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor after Alessandro Marcello, BWV 974, II. Adagio”. Admittedly, although begrudging in this admittance, this is a piece that exudes serenity. Soft bass arpeggios evoke the gentle strumming of a guitar that is overlaid by a wistful-sounding melody punctuated by delicate trills. For those familiar with Gould, this piece is a classic example of the pianist that he was and an instant reminder to dig out and re-listen to his recording of “Goldberg Variations”, the 1955 recording that launched his musical career. With no room to breathe, the compilation launches into its second piece, catapulting some three hundred plus years through history to “Sonatine No.1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op.67, II. Largo” by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Imagine the difference between looking at the intricate detailing on the border of a complex tapestry and a picture of broad sweeping barren landscapes, and you’ll understand why it’s hard to aurally reconcile the two. There are multiple examples of this throughout the compilation, but the biggest disjoint comes between Grieg’s “Sonata in E Minor” and Scriabin’s “Deux Morceaux”. The melodic nature of the former does nothing to set you up for the latter’s almost atonal characteristics and this leaves you practically grinding your teeth.

Griping aside, the advantage to this compilation is the opportunity to hear Gould spin short musical stories. He’s not a perfunctory pianist and even on tracks that are as short as two minutes, there is the undeniable obsessive-compulsive style that trademarks his playing. The attention to detail, from the relationship between each note to its neighbor, from each phrase to the next, Gould leaves nothing unexplored. It brings intensity to his interpretations that, when concentrated within a short piece, has an overpowering effect of relentlessness. Scriabin’s “Deux Morceaux, Nos. 1 and 2” are two of the highlights. Another pianist could simply skirt over Strauss’s “Funt Klavierstucke” as nothing more than just a pretty piece, but Gould manages to inject substance into the repetitive open-ended question phrases by progressively building the case for resolution with each pass of the opening statement.

Sandwiched between pieces from the Romantic movement in the middle of the compilation are two tracks from the Baroque period, “Sonata in A Minor (W├╝rttembergische Sonate)” by C.P.E. Bach and “English Suite No.4 in F Major, BWV 809, IV. Sarabande” by J.S. Bach. As with the opening Bach piece, the precision with which he interprets the music is unique to his style, without losing momentum or interest.

In short, this compilation is a disappointment. This is truly a shame because Gould deserves so much more than being the subject of corporate executive marketing. Those interested in learning more about his works should check out Sony’s eight Glenn Gould editions.

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