February 8, 2008

Musical notes: On histrionics

A lovely and devoted reader sent through this recent New York Times article, which is about concert pianists engaging in physical histrionics at the instrument. Since it was elicited by my post about Glenn Gould here, and the article uses him as an example of said histrionics, I'm compelled to defend the late Mr. Gould against these silly accusations.*

First of all, it must be stressed that the effective performance of J.S. Bach's keyboard works requires a degree of concentration that may be fairly described as verging on the superhuman. Bach's collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues, Das wohltemperierte Clavier, has been aptly portrayed as the Old Testament of the piano repertoire (Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas being the New).

Additionally, Bach's Goldberg Variations, which Gould recorded twice, once at the outset and once at the conclusion of his career, is so technically difficult few pianists even attempt it, let alone completely own it, as Mr. Gould did.

So it isn't any wonder their execution might involve a few grimaces and head bobs on the part of the performer. Bearing this in mind, here is what Bernard Holland of the Times wrote:
More often, I suspect, performers just want everyone to know how wonderful they are, right down to their virtuoso fingertips. There are bad examples out there. Liszt evidently jumped around when he was a young touring virtuoso, but he is said to have sat at the piano like a stone later in life. Glenn Gould, who acted out his musical eccentricities with remarkable finesse, looked like the music he was making.
The bad example, as any self-respecting classical music critic should know, is placing Glenn Gould in this context.

Number one, Gould detested the flamboyant Franz Liszt and most of his Romantic contemporaries. Take a look at Gould's extensive recorded catalog; it's as if the 19th century never happened.

Second, Gould was a "touring virtuoso" for only a short time. The fact is, Gould gave up public performances for good in 1964 at the age of 31, devoting the remaining 20 years of his life to recording and other solitary pursuits. To the extent that Gould wanted anyone to know how "wonderful he was," it was through getting people to listen to the music, and not watching him play it. That people were watching him is precisely the reason Gould eschewed the concert stage.

Not only that, but Glenn Gould was among the most notorious and nocturnal hermits of all time, and any suggestion that he craved public notoriety at all is stuff and nonsense. I daresay the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's most excellent music writer Tom Strini would never commit such a stupendous faux pas.

In other musical notes, my good buddy the Brew City Brawler, in the course of checking out his homage to a few seminal American punk bands, inspires me to two things: pull out my original Bad Brains ROIR cassette, and point to a couple of amusing commentaries by Henry Rollins, the former frontman of Black Flag:

Dear Ann Coulter (YouTube, 2:25)

Evolution (YouTube, 2:44)

While it may be fair (albeit simultaneously absurd) comment for some unintentionally comic buffoon to claim this here blog is riddled with "anti-Christian bigotry," let it not be said that my penchant for diverse musical appreciations is anything but catholic. And speaking of Catholics, be sure to check out the Brawler's takes on the latest developments within and without the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

* Which are in no sense whatsoever any reflection on my lovely and devoted reader, I hasten to add.

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