Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bach, Straight Up

The other morning I was in a hurry to get somewhere (the fact that I cannot remember where shows just how vital it was). I shoved half a dozen CD's into the player in my car and drove off. Just by chance, I happened to put Gustave Leonhardt's recording of the Bach Italian Concerto next to that of Glenn Gould. It proved to be what has often been called "serendipity."

I had always thought that Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach represented the quintessential interpretation of his keyboard works performed "straight." That is, exactly as Bach intended them, without the interposition of the performer's ego. Yet, in listening to Leonarhardt's version immediately followed by Gould's, I was amazed at the difference.

To my mind, Gustave Leonhardt is the authoritative interpreter in our time of Bach's keyboard works, not least because he performs them on the harpsichord, for which instrument they were written. The piano had not yet been invented in Bach's time, and so only on the harpsichord, that exquisite instrument for which Bach wrote, can we hear his keyboard works as that great genius intended. And in that regard (in my view, at least) Leonhardt is unsurpassed. (I note in some puzzlement and alarm that Leonhardt actually played Bach in a French movie I once saw in film school. He was dreadful in the role, and it was one of the worst films I have ever seen.)

But I think that if you want to know what Bach truly intended, you must go to Leonhardt's performances. They are tasteful, balanced, ego-less, and beautifully executed. And so I listened to his Italian Concerto which, as I remarked to some callow youth recently, is as close to perfection on Earth as you will ever come. And then, immediately after, somewhere on the 210 Freeway between Pasadena and Studio City, I listened to Glenn Gould.

For the first time in my life, I heard his playing in contrast - in contrast to Leonhardt. And for the first time I realized just how stylized Gould's playing is. It is not "straight up," but, rather, very personal, even romanticized, though Gould derided the romantics as inane and self-indulgent. But the fact is, as I heard it, that Glenn Gould takes tremendous liberties with Bach, molding and shaping his keyboard works in a way that can only be described as romantic, as deeply personal. I then went on to listen to his iconic recordings of the Inventions and the English Suite with this in mind and, sure enough, there was the romantic in Gould impressing itself on Bach whether Bach wished it or not.

The difference lies, I have to assume, in the instrument. The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, more akin to the guitar than it is to the piano. When a key is struck, its action rises with a slender membrane of quill and plucks the string, then retires back around it (the origin, by the way, of the eccentric cam movement which made the film projector possible). There is no sostenuto in the harpsichord, no chance for shaping and sustaining a note. The note has sounded, and that is all. Whereas, in the piano, which is essentially a percussion instrument (as Stravinsky famously pointed out), more linked to the drum than to the guitar, the note can be sustained, shaded, colored and shaped. And so, the piano lends itself naturally to the expression of feeling, of self-indulgence, even of excess, whereas the harpsichord is an instrument of logic and precision. The harpsichord note, once struck, cannot be un-struck, cannot be shaped and shaded and made to express the performer's momentary passion. The harpsichord note is what it is - what the composer made it. While the piano note is a palette, that of the harpsichord is an assertion - a punctual statement in time and space which cannot be mitigated. In my hearing, Glenn Gould, great artist and analyst that he was, because he was a pianist, could not resist the temptation to reflect himself in his playing - Bach be damned.

As the music went on, I pointed out to my seven-year-old that, if you listen carefully, you can hear Glenn Gould humming as he plays. Sometimes he is humming the melody and sometimes the counterpoint. But whichever, he is singing along with Bach, and in that lies a clue. Glenn Gould was in love with Bach's keyboard works, and as with any poetic lover, he could not resist the temptation to comment on his love, to rhapsodize on it, to harmonize with it, and, finally, to change it. Gould was essentially a poet - a poet of the keyboard - and all poets seek to change that which they love, since they see reflected in it something of themselves. And they hope, by changing the beloved, to make themselves more complete and more beautiful - fatuous as that hope may be. For the poet, the reality of the beloved is not the ultimate experience - the poetic response to the beloved is.

It was an enlightening experience; not a distressing one. Gould injects himself into his performance of Bach as much as Ashkenazy does in Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein does in Chopin. He just does it more subtly and more clinically. He cannot help it - his instrument and his exquisitely bizarre poet's ego demand it. It is the fact that Gould is playing Bach on a piano that mandates the intrusion of his ego into Bach - and that is wonderful, since Glenn Gould's ego was unique, and it challenged all of us to think more deeply and more vividly about works that we thought we knew, because we have lived with them all of our lives.