Quualudes and Fugues

Glenn Gould was an oddball’s oddball. He’d show up at the studio layered in heavy winter garb, even in summer, carrying his piano stool — a plain chair — with him. Before every performance he could be seen dipping his arms up to the elbows in a bucket of hot water. Gesturing wildly, he seemed to be conducting his own playing, singing, muttering and groaning along to the music.

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For all his eccentricities, no one doubts that Gould was incomparable. His Bach is iconic, his Mozart utterly bizarre. Beethoven, in Gould’s recordings, often sounds like someone had erased pedal markings and tempo indications. Everything Gould touched, from the obscure Orlando Gibbons to Arnold Schoenberg, was stamped with his own refreshing precocity. And he played with the abandon and delight of someone in their own solar system.

But his recording of Georg Frideric Handel’s Suites 1-4, which originally appeared in 1720, reach a whole new level of strangeness that borders on perversity.

The four Baroque pieces, under Gould’s fingers, become something like high camp, right down to portraying the pianist in a gaudy silver frame on the sleeve, above an equally gaudy embellished gold pedestal. This would be Gould’s first recording on the harpsichord, and the instrument sounds alternately like a 68-string zither, a prepared guitar, and here and there like a piece of carpentry not meant to produce music at all.

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Handel’s period was rife with extemporization, taking liberties with themes in the way of jazz, and Gould doesn’t skimp on the riffing. It’s probably the strangest Handel we’re likely to hear: one moment the pianist cascades through like he’s recording the roll for a player-piano, the next he’s teasing the keys harp-like. With this recording, Gould’s idiosyncrasies are as pronounced as they’d ever be.

From the Suite 1 Prelude Gould deconstructs Handel’s keyboard works rather than just performing them, adding trills and little runs around the simple theme in Bachian fashion. The Gigue that closes out the Suite is a manic dance that comes off like a synthesized take.

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Likewise, the Adagio that opens the Suite 2 is played painfully slow, as Gould fragments the harmony into tiny pieces of modality. Following that, his Allegro flat-out bolts to another Adagio before going heafirst into the Fuga. Gould was most assured with Bach and counterpoint, so it’s not surprising that the playing here sounds most natural.

But it’s the Air, Variations and Presto of the 3rd Suite that, in a nutshell, characterizes the whole performance, running practically an entire half of the B-side. Here, Gould lets his freak flag fly, going from languorous and halting (and resembling nothing so much as a Renaissance-era song) to a full on high-speed lunge in the Presto. Vintage Gould — circumspect, obsessive, constantly unexpected.

Which is to say the album is cracked-out Baroque. Filled with equal parts lassitude and frenzy, Gould’s Handel is ultimately a bit of high-flying kitsch. Also, it’s completely addictive and impossible not to spin over and over again. Gould and Handel, two very different people, seem to be sharing an inside joke the rest of us aren’t in on, but which we can play along with as though we are anyway.

Maybe the weirdest thing I can say about this record is that it sounds exactly like Glenn Gould playing Handel on a harpsichord.

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