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Archive for October, 2002

Vintage Gould: Earlier Or Later?

Posted by acdtest on October 9, 2002

Vintage Gould: Earlier Or Later?

ovely Weekend Guest, a first-rate pianist and knowledgeable lover of Bach’s keyboard works (she often refers to them by BWV number, for instance) spent part of her last weekend evening here in a friendly but, um, animated discussion with me of Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (or BWV 988 as LWG calls it just to piss me off). On the whole, I rather prefer the earlier reading, she the later. The readings, both of them, are, of course, genuine marvels, and display in equal measure Gould’s trademark, irreproducible, and nonpareil performance technique — the preternatural delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines; the uncanny rhythmic sense, perfectly precise but infinitely plastic; and the equally precise and plastic articulation which commentators and critics insist on referring to as détaché, but which is rather a near-perfect pianistic analogue of the highly prized and near-impossible harpsichord legato — but are otherwise world’s apart in spirit.

Rambunctious, LWG calls the earlier reading. Staid, I call the later, but only half mean it, using the term largely for reasons of symmetry with her rambunctious. About the only interpretive point on which we agree is that both Gould readings of this without-equal crown jewel of the Baroque keyboard repertoire blow away all other readings, truly excellent though some are.

I’ve had the recordings of both readings in my library almost since the day of their releases (both of which recordings survived the catastrophe that consumed most of the rest of my libraries several years ago), and though I listen to them often, I never really made the effort to nail down exactly why I preferred the one reading over the other. Better late than never, I decide, and so use the previous evening’s discussion with LWG as a spur.

Leaving aside the aria and aria da capo which, respectively, open and close the set of variations (I leave them aside mostly because I suspect I’m missing something important concerning them in the later reading as I simply cannot contrive a reasonable aesthetic, musical, or emotional justification for the funereal, almost structure-destroying tempi taken for them by Gould in this reading), I always vaguely imagined it was the generally slower — at times significantly slower — tempi of the later reading (i.e., slower as compared with the earlier reading) that provoked my antipathy for, even annoyance with, that reading. But I now see that’s not it. Something else. And that something else is, I think, most clearly exemplified in Gould’s two readings of Variation 25; an astonishing piece of music that enters the set of variations like some alien presence, and at its departure leaves one slack-jawed with amazement and wonder.

With its mind-boggling modulations and implied enharmonic shifts, Variation 25’s chromaticism is so extreme it makes the music of Tristan and Parsifal seem positively diatonic by comparison. Gould, in his liner notes for the 1955 release, refers to this variation in his typically provocative way as a “Chopinesque mood-piece,” and elsewhere as a “Romantic effusion.” It’s neither of these, of course, but thoroughly and essentially Bachian throughout. It’s simply that it appears to not belong to this set of variations, but oddly — and magically — still remains one with them while at the same time seeming to inhabit another world altogether.

In his earlier reading, Gould captures this other-world quality to perfection, largely by his circumspect and strategic use of rubati, a musical device more appropriate to Chopin and the Romantics than to Bach, but here used to brilliant effect. This variation is one of the few where the tempo of the earlier reading is taken slower overall than the later (but only marginally so; 6’28” vs. 6’03”; a mere 6% difference in timings). The confluence of the marginally slower overall tempo and the strategic use of rubati, however, makes the melodic and harmonic lines of this earlier reading seem to play out on a scale cosmically slow, their internal pulse seemingly proceeding as do the slow wheeling of galaxies through infinite eons of boundless space, the lines’ modulations and implied enharmonic shifts, given point by the rubati, all the while suggesting tonalities mystically strange and vastly remote.

As I said, music that leaves one slack-jawed with amazement and wonder.

In the earlier reading this is unmistakable. In the later reading the rubati, while still present to some extent, are largely emasculated, the internal pace and inflection of the melodic and harmonic lines spun out in deliberately and soberly considered fashion, the variation seeming to belong more at home with the set of variations than in the earlier reading because more metrically and sensibly proportional to them. The mind-boggling modulations and implied enharmonic shifts are still there, of course, and still give this variation the sense of a vaguely alien presence within the set of variations, but the other-world magic of the earlier reading has gone missing. Gould’s deliberate and sober approach to the music bars such mysteries. One’s amazement at the music’s harmonic boldness remains, but the wonder has fled.

This stately, deliberate sobriety characterizes most (but not all) of Gould’s later reading of the Goldberg; a sobriety achieved by various musical means, one of which is Gould’s singling out of an inner contrapuntal voice (typically, the unifying element of the aria’s bass line) as if to say, “See? Here it is.” The device is somewhat reminiscent of that used in those idiot “Konzept” opera productions where the self-involved director insists on repeatedly hitting the audience over the head with his particular “vision” lest they miss it. It’s a device as annoying here as it is there.

The sheer audacity — the “rambunctious[ness]” — of Gould’s earlier reading may be considered by some a mark against it, but for me it’s that very audacity that gives revelatory life to that earlier reading, while the deliberately sober later reading largely (but, again, not entirely) eschews audacity as if to act as corrective for the implied youthful excesses of the earlier. While the later reading may achieve its end in that respect, it does so at a cost, and to my way of thinking, the price is simply too high.

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Whither Genuine Art?

Posted by acdtest on October 2, 2002

Whither Genuine Art?

he online magazine Salon.com has an interesting article up today by Harvard assistant professor and composer Joshua Fineberg that asks the question, Classical Music: Why Bother?. Mr. Fineberg’s answer: Because classical music, like all genuine art, has intrinsic worth and value that makes it worthwhile bothering about. He goes on to lay the blame for the generally sorry state of classical music in our culture at the doorstep of the present cultural climate that exists in this country vis-à-vis art, and which insists on the principle that no created work has an intrinsic value and worth that makes it superior to any other, but that all created works are inherently equal, and individual taste is both the determiner of what is and what isn’t art, and the final arbiter of a created work’s worth and value.

In other words, vox populi vox Dei, and the market rules.

What else is new. This will hardly come as Earth-shattering news to anyone, in America especially, who hasn’t been sequestered in a cave for at least the past couple decades or so. That equalitarian notion where art is concerned was born in the radical populist ferment of the 1960s, and achieved its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in the PC and postmodern thinking of the 1980s; thinking that continues in force up to the present day.

It strikes me that Mr. Fineberg displayed a certain failure of nerve in his piece, and danced around the real central issue: Genuine art — genuine and art as determined not by the individual tastes of The People, but by those who by education, training, and experience are competent and qualified to make such determinations — both in its creation and reception is, and from Day One has always been, a strictly elitist affair where equalitarian thinking and notions have no place. None whatsoever.

And that’s the crux of the problem today, again, especially in America. Today’s authentic elite would sooner cut out their tongues than admit publicly to their status, or even so much as suggest that the concept of an elite has any real meaning. Understandable, actually. Being charged with elitism today is, in its degree of opprobriousness, on a par with being charged with child molestation. And so we get the absurd public stances on art on the part of those who should and do in fact know better; those such as Mr. Fineberg mentions in his piece; viz., museum directors, artistic directors, classical performers and composers, and ministers of culture. And I would add public school boards, university administrators and faculty, newspaper and magazine editors, writers, and publishers, etc., etc.

So, what’s the real answer and solution? The real answer is that, as Mr. Fineberg correctly states, genuine art has intrinsic value and worth regardless of its reception by the public, and is distinct from trash. And the real solution is that those who by education, training, and experience are qualified and competent to distinguish genuine art from trash — even appealing trash (there is such; contemporary commercial fiction, and much of 19th-century Italian opera, for but two examples) — must be willing to stand up and declare that distinction publicly and loudly; be willing to declare trash even, or rather especially, when that trash is held in high esteem by The People; be willing to declare openly to any and all species of philistine: No, you bloody purblind simpletons! That’s not art. That’s crap you’re effusing over, and not worth the time and attention of a trained chimp. Wake up and smell the garbage dump you presently inhabit, or you and your children and your children’s children will be doomed to become its permanent residents.

Incredible though it may seem, prior to the 1960s there were such stalwarts in this country, and they were unashamed of their elite status, and unashamed as well to declare genuine art as art, trash as trash, and the immensity of the distinction between the two. Today, if such in fact still exist, their voices have been muffled or stilled, either through cowardice, or by the fact their once lofty and influential pulpits have fallen victim or been sacrificed to the marketplace, and the power of the rabble.

Let us now pray.

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