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William Bender
American Record Guide, March 2009

The three last piano sonatas of Beethoven were Glenn Gould’s first recordings following his celebrated debut in 1955 with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Taped in 1956 in seven sessions in New York in Columbia’s very best sound, they sound as if made yesterday—especially in this Naxos reissue, re-engineered by Mark Obert-Thorn.

What of the performances? They were not uniformly loved at first, to put it mildly. It must be conceded now that No. 30 is as eccentric as everybody then said it was. Critics like to talk about giving music room to breathe. This is not just breathless, it is suffocated—and suffocating. Gould plays it like a finger-crazy display piece, missing its essentially gentle, lyrical voice—completely destroying one of the most beautiful moments in all Beethoven, the 4th variation in III. Nos. 31 and 32 are marvelous—entirely orthodox, even with those super-quick scale passages in 111’s first movement—entirely free of eccentricity. In appreciating these performances, it does not help to have some anonymous Naxos blurb writer advise us of Gould’s “omission of repeats”. True in 30, to be sure. But in 32, where there are eight repeats in the second movement and one in the first, Gould makes them all. And in 31 he makes all but the last short repeat at the end of II.

Though Gould has technique to burn—and plenty is needed—it is his expressiveness in an orthodox framework, his almost compassionate avoidance of rigidity, his tasteful bending of tempos, that so distinguish these readings. Gould’s 31 and 32 are not like anybody else’s Beethoven. They create their own kind of orthodoxy, and it works. His reading of 32’s last-movement variations is moving beyond words. It is hard to imagine anyone truly interested in Gould—or Beethoven—not wanting to at least hear what he does with these pinnacles of the piano literature.

Herbert von Karajan did not speak well in public of many other musicians, but he did admire Glenn Gould, and said so. They worked together in May 1957 for this concert performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 3 with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the result is extraordinarily good—and enhanced no end by the truly scintillating trills and scale work tossed off with seeming ease by the pianist. Gould plays very well, missing nary a note, and is on his best musical behavior under Karajan’s watchful gaze. No wonder the maestro was enthusiastic about him. Gould would not retire from the concert world until 1964, and was at his crowd-pleasing best here.

The companion piece, Bach’s ingenious Piano Concerto 1, was recorded in 1955 in concert with his fellow Canadians, The Toronto Symphony. It is a work that suited Gould’s technique and interest in Bach, but, alas, the performance is ponderously slow under Ernest MacMillan’s baton. Much better is Gould’s 1958 concert performance with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which really moves. It is also livelier than the reading Gould recorded with Leonard Bernstein for Columbia. The Mitropoulos was also coupled with the Gould/Karajan Beethoven Third. The original source for the Beethoven was obviously a good radio broadcast, and the sound is clear and warm, though a reduction in treble will reduce a slight haze over portions of the Urania.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, December 2008

I don’t know why I received a jolt when I saw that Gould’s Beethoven sonatas had been Naxosed. Perhaps it was the early death or the feeling that he is somehow still very much our contemporary. At any event these recordings were made in June 1956 so they are perfectly valid entrants in the Naxos Historical line.

So should you have missed a Sony incarnation this is an inexpensive way to get hold of his frequently bizarre Beethoven performances. Op.109 opens relatively stably though sketchy as to detail. Variation three of the finale is absurdly fast and the succeeding variations fluctuate wildly. The effect physically and perhaps psychologically—always a dangerous area to psychoanalyse Gouldian performance—is to destabilise accepted structural and emotive norms. Op.110’s opening movement lacks the kind of madcap caprice that so disfigured the earlier work though it is rather perfunctory. The scherzo lacks expressive depth—or deigns to find such in the music—whilst the finale features some stratospheric chording before the final fugal episode.

Op.111 is an extreme example of Gouldian perversity. If you didn’t know the performance especially well you might think that it had been speeded up. This is particularly true of the first movement which becomes, in Gould’s hands, a Keystone Kops episode. It is quite clearly an anti-reading, one dedicated to subverting Beethovenian hierarchies. Gould wrote specifically about the ’nonsense’ he felt had accrued to the last sonatas and quartets, railing at such as Huxley and Mann, whom amongst then contemporary novelists he singled out for especial criticism. Presumably he found their edifice building, the philosophical superstructures they propounded and the Sophoclean heights they found in late Beethoven, anathema to his purely pianistic view of the matter. The result was a clash of cultures the like of which music seldom sees—or hears. The emigré Europeans with their highfalutin’ fantasies were being scythed down by the North American pragmatist. The results though were, and are, bizarre. The irony is that it’s still Mann and Huxley’s Beethoven that largely prevails. Gould’s is bleached bones.

By all means acquaint yourself with this well transferred Naxos issue—but be prepared, if you’ve not heard the performances, for an act of didactic defiance rather than a musical compromise.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, November 2008

Glenn Gould’s provocative recording of the last three Beethoven sonatas offers performances than can sing (the opening of Op 109), contemplate (Op 110’s Adagio) or turn muscular argument into high-octane flimflam (Op 111’s Allegro con brio).  Moments of rapt concentration and genuine repose alternate with outlandish gestures in a uniquely Gouldian way and if you haven’t as yet managed to acquire one or other of Sony’s own CD reissues of the same recording, Naxos’s from Mark Obert-Thorn will leave you no cause for regret.

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