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Remembering The Late, Great Glenn Gould

02/24/2016 03:17 EST | Updated 02/24/2017 05:12 EST
Jock Carroll

The late Glenn Gould was a Canadian national treasure. One of the great pianists of the 20th century, his rare intellect, astonishing technique and unmatched individuality marked him as a phenomenon from the outset of his meteoric -- if highly unconventional -- career.

More comfortable in front of microphones than people, Gould renounced the concert stage at the age of 31, devoting himself exclusively to recording and broadcasting activity and writing. His most enduring legacy is his trove of recordings for Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Classical).

In 1955 Gould signed an exclusive contract with Columbia, and remained with the label until his untimely death from a stroke in 1982 at age 50. Now Sony has issued Glenn Gould Remastered - The Complete Columbia Album Collection on 81 CDs in a limited-edition box set.

It refurbishes all of Gould's approved studio recordings, from his legendary 1955 Bach "Goldberg Variations" to his last recording in 1982, using state-of-the-art re-mastering technology. Each album is presented with its original LP sleeves and labels miniaturized for the CD format. The set is simultaneously released on USB stick in high resolution.

The deluxe box weighs in at 5.1 kg. Packaging includes a lavishly produced, 416-page hardcover book, featuring the complete original liner notes (many brilliantly penned by Gould himself); a wealth of facsimile documents; rare photographs; comprehensive discographical information, and a newly-commissioned introductory essay by Gould scholar and biographer Kevin Bazzana.

Few pianists are as readily identifiable as Gould, with his trademark perfectionism, rhythmic élan, and super- clean articulation -- whether via his incontestably brash Mozart Sonata cycle, or his fervent interpretations of 20th-century music.

Above all, the Toronto-born pianist has been treasured for his interpretations of J.S. Bach, most of whose keyboard music he recorded. There is nothing like Gould's Bach: its ecstatically rigorous control, lapidary finger work and rhythmic thrust, each musical line sculpted to a perfect equilibrium. In these remastered recordings, all of it is rendered with startling immediacy.

Unlike most pianists, Gould's repertoire largely eschewed the Romantic mainstays: Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff. Yet there are plenty of surprises in the set for those who haven't collected all of Gould's albums. For one, there is his virtuoso rendering of Prokofiev's "Seventh Sonata." If not as idiomatic as Richter, Horowitz or Ashkenazy, it nevertheless establishes Gould as a pianist capable of challenging those great Russians on their home turf.

In an album of Sibelius's little-known piano music, Gould experimented in "acoustic orchestration," differentiating the sense of acoustic space both within and between movements by recording them on multi-track tape and shifting the perspectives. Among much else, Gould was a sonic visionary.

A particular favorite is his recital of music by the English Tudor composers, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. Gould seems to transcend his own idiosyncrasies in rapt realizations of music that was obviously close to his heart.

Yet with the possible exception of his two, career-bookending recordings of the "Goldberg Variations," Gould's interpretations of particular works are rarely considered reference versions for collectors. That's because he couldn't help but impose his distinctive musical persona on whatever work he played.

One thinks of a comment by another great pianist, Alfred Brendel: "If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like, or the composer what he ought to have composed." That was not Glenn Gould.

Unlike other pianists, Gould sometimes recorded music for which he had little sympathy or affection. Not surprisingly, these are among his least successful discs, particularly his cycle of Mozart Piano Sonatas. After making some convincing early recordings of Mozart, the lights apparently went out for Gould with this composer.

Often in fast Mozart movements, he descends into quasi-caricature. The fabulous clarity and speed are all there, but the music doesn't sing. It's as if the pianist is trying to prove that Mozart isn't as good as he's supposed to be.

Gould won't be remembered for his Mozart, but he will be for his Bach. And it is all here in Sony's magnificent boxed set, along with everything else he committed to disc.

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