Why, 35 years after his death, do so many music lovers still respect Glenn Gould above all other pianists? One might assume that, since he played the work of such well-known composers as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms, he would have acceptable substitutes among the most highly skilled pianists of each successive generation. But none have ever taken Gould’s place, and quite possibly none ever will. His distinctiveness owes both to sheer aptitude, and to something else besides: Leonard Bernstein attempts an explanation of that something in the clip above, from the CBS Ford Presents broadcast of January 31, 1960.
“Gould and Bach have become a kind of legendary combination, in spite of Gould’s extreme youth and Bach’s extreme age,” says Bernstein just before a 28-year-old Gould makes his American television debut playing Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor. He goes on to explain the special challenge of playing Bach, who “belonged to a time when composers weren’t being very generous with information about how to play their notes.”
Simply playing the notes on the page would result in an “unutterably dull” performance, but “to what extent can the pianist supply dynamic variety?” Gould imbued the pieces he played with variety, dynamic and otherwise, all of it reflecting his own “judgments, instincts, and highly individual personality.”
In the years after this broadcast (which you can see in full here), Gould’s personality would grow even more highly individual. Just two years later, Gould and the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto came preceded by Bernstein’s infamous disclaimer: he found himself not in “total agreement” Gould’s performance, one “distinctly different from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms’ dynamic indications.” Two years after that, Gould would retire from live performance entirely, keeping a safe distance from his audience in the studio instead. We now remember him as the first classical pianist to truly inhabit the age of recording and broadcasting; did that habitation begin, in some sense, in the television studio with Bernstein?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.