Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Don't be frightened, Mr.Gould is here: Bernstein vs. Gould: 1962

The New York Philharmonic performance on Friday, April 6, 1962 became legendary. It has rolled downhill to create 48 years of water-cooler conversation.

Glenn Gould had ideas about tempo relationships between sections in the Brahms first piano concerto that differed so fundamentally from the current performance practice that there was no way to find common ground with conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein respected Gould as an innovator and as a "thinking performer," so he did not cancel his own performance. He came upon the idea of distancing himself from the interpretation by making prefatory remarks.

The ethical implications of these remarks are still being discussed. But they show Bernstein at his most charismatic and charming, with his best line being delivered at [2:10]. Still, he was always able to frame complicated ideas with clarity and great diplomacy.

Bernstein's first remark was to confirm that Gould would be performing and had not cancelled at the last minute:

[Radio Broadcaster:]
"The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is to be soloist now...Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic...in a performance of the piano concerto No. 1 in D minor by Brahms. [applause] I think Mr. Bernstein will have something to say to the audience...so, down to the stage:"

[Leonard Bernstein:]
[0:26] "Don't be frightened...Mr. Gould is here. (audience laughter) [He] will appear in a moment.

[0:32] I am not — as you know — in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two.

[0:46] You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications.

[1:09] I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception. And this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" (chuckles) I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist, that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.

[1:40] But the age-old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss — the soloist (chuckles) or the conductor?" (laughs) The answer is, of course, sometimes one and sometimes the other depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together, by persuasion or charm or even threats (brief laugh) to achieve a unified performance.

[2:10] I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. (extended laughter).

[2:27] But this time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.

[2:41] So why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct it?

[2:53] Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much played work; because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a thinking performer; and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the sportive element" (chuckles) — that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week (chuckles) collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto; and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you."

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