Glenn Gould Plays Bach: The complete series on DVD

Review by: Jed Distler

gouldplaysbach

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

During the late 1970s Glenn Gould and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon planned an extensive series of television films on the music of Bach. They completed three programs prior to Gould’s death in 1982, including a video documenting Gould’s 1981 remake of the Goldberg Variations. All three shows are gathered together for the first time on DVD.

The series’ first two installments, The Question of Instrument and An Art of the Fugue, are in fact new to DVD and showcase Gould in his preferred element: playing and talking to an audience of one, sitting in his notoriously dilapidated chair, hunched over the keyboard, humming along, and conducting with whichever hand happens to be free. It is well known that these seemingly off-the-cuff conversations with director Monsaingeon playing the role of interviewer and interlocutor were carefully scripted down to the last word. But the words are classic Gould, and they fully reveal his verbal brilliance, analytical acuity, and fondness for mischievously deflating sacred cows (his jibes against middle-period Beethoven and spending a little too much time airing his hatred of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, to name a few).

Yet we also witness Gould speaking and playing at the same time as he lovingly dissects Bach’s E major Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2. Gould also discusses the evolution of Bach’s fugal mastery and how his keyboard music can lend itself well to different tempos, articulations, and dynamics. What is more, Gould’s ability to give character and clarity to complex contrapuntal strands particularly shines throughout upbeat performances of the C major Sinfonia, Book 2’s B-flat minor Fugue, and Contrapunctus No. 4 from The Art of Fugue. Conversely, Gould’s ironclad keyboard control allows him to sustain the arguably protracted tempos he chooses for the latter work’s final, unfinished fugue, which he ends a little sooner than where Bach’s manuscript breaks off, in accordance with Carl Czerny’s piano edition.

It’s also interesting how the Fourth Partita greatly differs from Gould’s 1963 commercial recording in its more pronounced tempo contrasts, starker textures, and firmer rhythms. While laymen may find some of Gould’s talking to be overly technical in musical terms, I can’t imagine any serious music student or Bach acolyte not coming away richer from the experience.

The 1981 Goldberg Variations program is essentially a video document of Gould in the studio, as he revisits the work that launched his international career. Monsaingeon shoots each of the 30 variations and even different sections of variations from specific angles, creating a fluid visual counterpart to the music’s structure. For example, variations in two-part counterpoint often feature close-ups of Gould’s hands, while many of the cross-handed variations intended for two harpsichord manuals are shot from more of a distance, either from above or level with the performer. More importantly, Gould’s combination of concentrated focus and sheer ecstasy in music making permeates every frame.

Perhaps Gould hams up his infamous gesticulating for the camera now and then, yet he also wends his way through some of the work’s thorniest variations (Nos. 5, 14, and 20, for example) with total physical economy. To both see and hear Gould perform the work with which he remains most identified is both a gripping and moving experience. It’s too bad that Sony/BMG offers nothing in the way of “extras” such as Goldberg outtakes known to exist or interviews with participants. That should not deter ardent Gouldians from acquiring this boxed set while they can.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: GLENN GOULD PLAYS BACH
Reference Recording: Goldberg Variations DVD: This one

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Goldberg Variations; Contrapunctus 1 from The Art Of Fugue; Chromatic Fantasy; Partita No. 4 in D major; Contrapuncti 2, 4, & 15 from The Art Of Fugue; Sinfonia No. 1; The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2: Excerpts

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