Wednesday 28 January 2015

Desert Island Discs - Record Four - JS Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book One, played by Glenn Gould


When I attended a comedy revue and Hamlet parody called Hamalongayorick at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1978, I enjoyed the interval music in which a jazz piano trio played Bach - and soon afterwards I bought an LP of Jaques Loussier's jazz trio (which was presumably being emulated); but also Glenn Gould playing Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book One. 

Buying this double album was a double act of rebellion, since until then I had been a purist who insisted on Bach on harpsichord (and who indeed indeed was mildly hostile to the piano); and a rebel also in buying Glenn Gould's performance since the British musical establishment were barely aware of him, but when his performances were reviewed in The Gramophone they were usually given only two stars (out of five) due to their many eccentricities.

Insofar as the British establishment knew of Gould, they were hostile- and focused only on spiteful gossip. For example there was a false rumour that the fugues on his recording of the Bach 48 Preludes and Fugues had been recorded multi-tracked, with Gould playing one voice at a time. Of course, this was inadvertently very high praise of his ability to perform counterpoint!

But Gould and Bach's keyboard work provided my first serious, long term, and still-enduring instrumental obsession in classical music. I will listen to these pieces by Bach performedby many artists, on many instruments and combinations. And as for Glenn Gould... there were periods over the next few years when Gould - both his performances, and his example, became almost a life-line to me: a model of how I hoped, ideally, to live.

I have many memories of solitary times in various places (including Toronto - Gould's home city) listening to Gould and Bach with a luminous note-by-note intensity; projecting myself into that musical world as a place of detailed meaning and exalted inspiration.

At first I had to mail order Gould's LPs because they were not stocked by British shops, I bought some more on trips to the USA and Canada - but by the time he died four year later Gould had become almost a household name - and his star has continued to rise for many years. I even contributed a small piece to the edifice of his posthumous fame:

I find Bach's pieces, and especially (most of) Gould's performances, are just about the only music that never stales for me, no matter how many repetations - probably because its appeal is rather subtle and deep, so I never feel close to plumbing the depths.

Its appeal is also ascetic, monastic; and this is the best music for the enjoyment of solitude - even if that solitude was a moment grabbed from an over busy life, in a tiny room in a tower block in a city... Gould and Bach can make it as deserted as an island.


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