Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Glenn Gould playing La Valse; and playing "nice" with Bernstein

"The Art of Piano; Great Pianists of the 20th-Century," was released in 1999 by Nvc Arts. It is a documentary with segments consisting of commentary, interviews and performances by several significant musicians.

The segment about Glenn Gould is extraordinary not for the commentary and interviews, but for the playing itself. It would have been improved if it were only musical without verbal commentary:

At [0:36] the young Gould allows us into his home to see the reflection of his mind in this physical living space. He is already playing as he approaches the piano. He crosses his leg informally, the same kind of informality as expressed by his forgotten tea cup and saucer that sits unnoticed on his desk.

He plays the opening C-minor chord of the sinfonia from Bach's second partita. The opening chord looks vertical on the page, and it also looks isolated because it is separated from other events by silences. Gould launches the chord with his body, energizing it. It is not a vertical sound but one that is spread in time; he moves his elbow sharply to the right to push the sound in his imagination.

He is singing.

At [1:05] we discover a second camera in the room. Gould may have been informal but this session was not. The second camera allows us to see him oscillating as he develops this phrase, moving it steadily, almost systematically toward the dominant.

Do you recognize the music at [2:07]? It is strangely familiar; but it is wearing unexpected clothing. It is the piano version of "La Valse" by Ravel. The clip begins at during the final pages at the moment when the dance is taken apart by the centrifugal force that has been acted upon it. How fabulous to hear Gould play this music. It is not the idiom with which we associate him; he is not one who waltzed. But the hesitations, the lightening figuration, and even that futuristic blue background communicate with clarity.

The final segment is one of the famous collaborations between Gould and Leonard Bernstein. We are dropped into the concerto in the passage leading to the notated cadenza.

At [5:02] Bernstein turns to observe Gould playing this ecstatic passage. The physical interaction between mechanical and human expression is clear. The gentle lift in lines as the orchestra returns is picked up by Bernstein. As the lines accelerate Gould is able to maintain quiet focused hands. The camera angles give us a very expressive look at this historical moment; this extraordinary personality.

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