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Released in celebration of what would have been Glenn Gould’s 80th birthday (he was born in 1932), this deluxe 10-DVD set offers Gould’s Canadian television broadcasts over nearly a quarter of a century. Although much has been previously available, the present set creates an opportunity for proper reappraisal of Gould’s art, while simultaneously reminding us of his unique genius.

The earliest footage here is of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, captured in December 1954. Though it’s in grainy black and white, with the orchestra sounding none too clear, there’s an unmistakable vivacity to Gould’s reading (he plays his own cadenza, which is unsurprisingly highly contrapuntal). Even at this early stage, Gould’s mannerisms are in evidence, most notably his mobility on the piano stool, his swaying made even more giddying by a camera that seems loath to stay still.

Sharing the first disc is a 1961 broadcast entitled The Subject is Beethoven, with Gould assuming the roles of both performer and educator for the first time (it is preceded by a passionate studio recording of the ‘Tempest’ Sonata of 1960 that tests the tape sonics to their limits; there is also a 1967 performance in better sound later on in the box). Throughout his commentaries and interviews, Gould manages to mix approachability with nuggets of great insight. His enthusiasm is infectious – his talk on Beethoven that precedes the performance of Beethoven’s Third Cello Sonata (with Leonard Rose) is compelling, closed by an emphatic ‘Let’s just play it’, which leads to a remarkable example of true chamber music, with two great artists in complete accord.

That is more than can be said about the encounter between Gould and Menuhin, a striking example of two musical minds not meeting (in Beethoven’s Op 96 Sonata, at least). More enlightening is Gould in conversation with Humphrey Burton, which includes the pianist’s take on recording and the death of the concert hall: Burton’s incredulity forms the bedrock from which Gould’s flights of fantasy take wing. The second interview centres on Beethoven: Gould’s Columbia recording of the ‘Emperor’ with Stokowski is invoked, with the idea that it ‘sounds as much like the “Eroica” with a descant piano as we could’ (there is, incidentally, a Toronto performance of the ‘Emperor’ included in this set); and two more films explore Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. Gould’s love of Strauss is palpable and reinforced by a 1967 Toronto performance of the Burleske.

The polemic Gould is found in purest form is his talk ‘I detest audiences’. The reaction from a young Zubin Mehta says it all: ‘I think he’s out of his mind’. Gould on music in the USSR is highly stimulating and his reading of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata is the antithesis of Pollini’s mechanistic take, yet no less powerful for it. And how amazing to find him extemporising a fugue on ‘Doe, a deer’ from The Sound of Music in the exemplary lecture ‘The Anatomy of the Fugue’ before he traces the fugue from its prehistory (Marenzio, Lasso) through Bach, on to Hindemith and beyond.

Gould’s talk ‘Richard Strauss – a Personal View’ finds him describing himself as addicted to Strauss as some people are ‘to chocolate sundaes’. Lois Marshall gives a tremendous Cäcilie, as well as the three of the more progressive Ophelia-Lieder; Oscar Shumsky is superb in the first movement of the Violin Sonata. The talk ‘Anthology of Variation’ (including an astonishingly beautiful Sweelinck Fantasia) is remarkably informative, focusing on the canonic variations from the Goldbergs before springing off to Webern. He is most persuasive, perhaps, in the final two DVDs, where he persuasively presents music by Scriabin, Walton, Poulenc, Křenek and Casella, among others.

We also see Gould also as conductor and pianist/director. He conducts Mahler (‘Urlicht’ with Maureen Forrester), although in truth it looks as if he is directing traffic. He directs a luscious performance of Bach’s Cantata BWV54 (Russell Oberlin, countertenor; Julius Baker, flute and Oscar Shumsky, violin). There is fun here, too: the 1974 commercials for Musicamera with Gould as Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, Dr Karlheinz Klopweisser (no relation to Stockhausen, surely?) and Myron Chianti.

‘That magnificent non-conformist Johann Sebastian Bach’, as Gould refers to him, and with whom his name is forever inextricably linked, forms a thread running through the set. Among the many items is a programme that finds Gould playing a rather strange hybrid, the ‘harpsipiano’, in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (where he is joined by Isaac Stern and Oscar Shumsky).

‘Pay no attention to critics, ever,’ Gould says at one point. Perhaps pay attention to this, though: this is a remarkable box covering territory from Sweelinck to Webern, Walton and Hindemith via Bach that offers the most eloquent tribute imaginable for Gould’s 80th.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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