Don’t be so feeble

Monday October 2, 2006

Yesterday evening, while waiting for Graham to finish work, I caught the tail-end of a TV programme on BBC Four that just about knocked my socks off. It was a documentary on Glenn Gould, the legendary and rather eccentric pianist. I heard him play one or two of the Bach Goldberg variations in a way I’ve not experienced them before. And then a prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier.

There’s a school of thought on Bach that requires clinical attention to the academic, some would say mathematic, nature of his music. Pianists of this school sit upright, expressionless, and attend to precision above all else. Many of them play the music so fast you can’t hear the notes or follow the score unless you’re on the same near-genius level. The effect in some extreme cases is to achieve a perfect mechanical performance, like an over-wound music box.

Until I heard Glenn Gould playing I thought that this approach was the right one, the only proper one. I don’t anymore.

First, he plays the music slow. Slower than I’ve ever heard these pieces played before. And then, by means of his unbelievable virtuosity, he wrings every last drop of musical expression from them. The piano becomes liquid under his fingers, and it’s like hearing a message from God, through the soul of Bach and the soul of Gould. The effect, if you love music, could be called inspirational but that’d be to understate the case. For me it was more like a sudden awakening, a turning-point in my life-long love of music.

The purists will say there’s more of Gould than of Bach in these performances. I don’t know enough to say if they’re right, or if they’re wrong, and I don’t care. My soul tells me to seek out and listen to more and, when I sit at my own piano valiantly fumbling through Bach keyboard music, to play them slow. All the better to savour them, my dear.

So, this morning, I did just that. I’m currently working my way through the first prelude of Die Wohltempierte Klavier and until now, finding it very heavy going. My fingers have too much arthritis in them ever to play all those little notes as fast as I was taught to play them when I was a kid, and certainly not as fast as they’re played on my brilliant copy on CD.

Now, I’m no Glenn Gould. I’m no kind of performance pianist at all—I do this for my own private enjoyment. Even so, it was as if the piano came to life as I played and I had more joy of my practice session than ever before.

“That sounded good,” Graham said. “Haven’t heard you play like that before.”

I explained the Gould experience, what it’d meant to me, and what I was trying to do in response. “I shall have to buy a couple of his CDs when I get my budget under control.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Put ’em on your Amazon wishlist and I’ll see if perhaps I can’t persuade Father Christmas to call early this year.”

“I don’t have an Amazon wishlist anymore.”

“Well, make a new one, then. Don’t be so feeble.”



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