Glenn Gould – Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas

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Beethoven
Piano Sonata in E, Op.109
Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Glenn Gould (piano)

Recorded 20-29 June 1956 in Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: August 2008
CD No: NAXOS 8.111299
Duration: 56 minutes

innigkeit, and the tempo for the first Variation is far too fast and semiquaver figures are devoid of lightness, line and flow – one-dimensional and superficial. The magisterial command and profundity of Solomon (1951) or Kovacevich (1996) are nowhere to be found. Timings generally don’t tell you much about the quality of a performance, but Solomon takes 13 minutes for the finale’s Variations and Gould takes the same time for the entire work!

It could be said that Opus 110 is in rather more conventional form, having four movements, the first of which has two subjects, a development, recapitulation and a coda. But there convention ends! The second subject is a fragmentary set of ideas, the start of the development blurred and the recapitulation startlingly original. No exposition repeat is indicated. The movement is marked Molto cantabile, molto espressivo and the opening bars are also to be played ‘amiably’ – whatever that means! Gould has a certain innocent tranquillity, but seems unable to highlight significant moments and expressive changes. As in Opus 109 his view is one-dimensional. Kovacevich (in 2003) by comparison uses just about every pianistic device known to quietly map the movement out without appearing to be use artifice – it all comes from the heart.

The scherzo is under-powered. Yet even someone as determined as Gould to be coolly detached cannot rob the opening four bars of the ‘Arioso dolente’ that forms the second half of the Adagio of its unearthly beauty. Unfortunately the repeated chords which announce the Fugue are astonishingly crude and the rest of the sonata comes close to being crass. The pianist simply shows contempt, verging on hatred, for the music.

Of Opus 111 little can be said. The opening Allegro is ridiculously fast. Solomon in 1948 (the better of his two recordings of the work and, with Schnabel the finest account of the work I know) is hardly slow, but he conveys enormous power and tension. Gould merely sounds breathless. In the ‘Arietta’ the opening tempo is fine, but there is no depth of feeling, no give and take in the phrasing and dynamics. The Theme and first and fourth Variations are in 9/16 time, the second in 6/16 and the third 12/32. Gould’s approach makes it difficult to register, either consciously or subconsciously, these fundamental changes. Beethoven’s increasingly complex – outlandish – decorations of the opening theme’s outline, pass for little. Everything is subsumed in a cold desire to reach the end as fast as possible and the coda does not suggest – to use a quote from Shelley that would have appalled Gould – “the white radiance of Eternity”.

These performances raise a serious question about Gould’s desire to remove part of the interpreting artist’s conscious personality from music-making. Gould was only 23 when these sonatas were recorded, but his desire to eliminate any sense of spirituality from these works sounds decidedly conscious. He does not succeed! Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations are the most profound, sublime music ever written for the piano and even in Gould’s hands their transcendental greatness still shines through.

The legend of and the kudos surrounding Glenn Gould will no doubt ensure that this release sells in large numbers; yet if the pianist was not identified I suspect many would be less than convinced by the performances. The booklet does not inform what source material Mark Obert-Thorn has used, but I am not convinced it is the original US Columbia vinyl that I have a copy of. Maybe CBS produced a commercial reel-to-reel of these performances, but this re-mastering seems as though it is derived from tape. However even allowing for the inevitable degradation in sound that digitalisation brings, this transfer is very good, being not too forwardly balanced and having excellent presence. It is different but not inferior to Sony’s Glenn Gould Edition issue.

Anyway you can now obtain Gould’s renditions for virtually nothing and make your own mind up. But, whatever you do, don’t play Kovacevich, Schnabel or Solomon beforehand!

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