Glenn Gould and contemporary Canadian music: hints are that
Discophage | France | 11/24/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Independent of any other consideration this disc is anyway a must-have for any admirer of Glenn Gould, and/or of contemporary Canadian (and Norwegian) music. It collates the contents of a CBS LP originally published on the occasion the the Canadian centennial celebrations in 1967. To that, the short composition of Barbara Pentland, recorded back then but, for reasons unexplained, not published with the rest (it would have fitted on the LP) gets its first release, as well as the rare 2nd Sonata opus 38 of Norwegian composer Fartein Valen , recorded for the Canadian radio in 1972. Other than an earlier recording of Morawetz' Fantasy (a composition Gould premiered in 1951) published by Radio Canada International (Programme 120, paired with Bach's Partita n° 5), this is I believe the only contemporary music (meaning post-1950) recorded by Gould (other than his own compositions, of course).
Not that all the compositions are truly memorable. Of all, it is Jacques Hétu's Variations that I find most impressive. It is, at its best, massive and powerful, displays splendid sonic imagination and makes awesome virtuosic demands. Truth is, in the moments of repose it seems to meander, but about that, more anon. Hétu, born in 1938, is the youngest composer featured on this disc.
Istvàn Anhalt's Fantasia is an austere and grim but rather atmospheric composition, although the logic of its architecture remains (to my ears) elusive, making its 11+ minutes sound somewhat longer than they probably are. The liner notes are silent on the composition (the only one they elaborate a little upon is Valen's Sonata), and I don't know if it is written in twelve-tone technique (with Gould's legendary humming adding his own quarter-tones!), but it sure sounds that way. Not much - in fact, nothing - is said in the notes about the composers' bios either, which triggered a check on the internet. That led to the marvelous biographies of Canadian composers presented by the Encyclopeida of Music in Canada. Good ear: "Beginning with Fantasia (1954) for piano, he turned to the application of serialism which brought to his music a measure of structuralist orientation and objectivity, but this in no way precluded the expressive element in his musical thinking". Anhalt was born in Hungary in 1919, studied with Kodaly then in Paris right after WWII, before establishing in Canada in 1949.
Barbara Pentland's Ombres is even more serialist than Anhalt's Fantasy: not yet like Babbitt, but somewhere in that direction - not as dry and pointillistic, more atmospheric and playing on chordal resonnance. The piece is short and probably not entirely significant. I had never heard of Barbara Pentland and, hearing the music, thought she was a young Canadian radical from Gould's generation. Not so: she is an old radical, born in 1912, died in 2000, and her compositional achievements seem impressive.
Oscar Morawetz" Fantasy in D minor is an overlong and rambling piece of no particular distinction, with strong reminiscences of the Austro-German expressionism of Eisler and Krenek (no wonder, since Morawetz was born in Czechoslovakia in 1917 and studied in Prague, Vienna and Paris, fleeing the Nazi advance before establishing in Canada), and at times even evoking Brahms' Rhapsodies, late-Liszt and, in the grand bombastic climaxes, Rachmaninoff. That it is a "fantasy" seems to have given the composer full leeway to go roller-coasting from soft to loud and back.
Gould's infatuation with the music of Fartein Valen may be ascribed to the pianist's legendary idiosyncracies. Another grim and stern atonal composition. Berg's Sonata without the romantic passion and the seductiveness. The concluding Toccata kindles a modicum of interest for its digital activity.
With Gould and contemporary music, it is hard to tell if the interpreter does full justice to the compositions. As I said, the liner notes are poor on factual information, but they do provide some interesting anecdotes on Gould and these recordings. They mention composer Jacque Hétu's self-admitted "violent shock" at hearing Gould's recording of his Variations, and being confronted with the complete betrayal of the spirit AND the letter of his composition. So maybe the impression of rambling conveyed by these compositions comes from the interpreter and not the pieces themselves. The first movement of Valen's Sonata is indicated Allegro Maestoso, but at Gould's hands it really sounds like a lento, and only around 7:00 does it give the impression of accelerating and climaxing, before rapidly receding to the beginning tempo. If you are not listening carefully you won't realize that you have moved into the actual slow movement. I had the curiosity to check and, yes, there has been another recording, made by Robert Riefling for the BIS label (Piano Music from Norway, with some tracks available on download under Valen / Saeverud: Piano Music). Guess what? There, the first movement lasts 8:15, against Gould's 12:44.
So, as a showcase for these composers and compositions, I wouldn't be too assertive. But this disc certaintly is a unique showcase of Gould's way with contemporary music. File under Gould, then.