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.

Bach & Bach & Bach & Bach

Harpsichords are an acquired taste, with the assumption that it’s an instrument best played in powdered wigs and weird frilly shirts. To some they’re the soul of Baroque music, while others find the sound about as pleasant to the ear as cracked-out mice in tap shoes.

I used to be in the latter crowd, but have since gravitated to the former after listening to such inventive pieces for the instrument as Henryk Gorecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord (Or Piano) from 1980, Glenn Gould’s outer space interpretation of Suites by Handel (the “what the fuck am I hearing” factor is pretty high there, but in a good way. Maybe). Philip Glass’s 2002 Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra is something I could listen to all day.

More often than not, the harpsichord is utilized in a half joking, postmodern way, signaling a shift from elitist fussiness to transgressive atonality. Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grossi are great examples, sounding like it was completed by Corelli during an exorcism, as are a few pieces by Eliot Carter.

Modern music has been slow to pick up on the instrument, but when used as more than an incidental novelty, it works remarkably well. The Beatles’ version of “In My Life” and “M16” by Vampire Weekend are two songs that give the harpsichord its own solos. Unlike the glass harmonica and the pianoforte, harpsichords don’t seem to be on their way out.

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Anyway, Jean Rondeau’s powerful Dynastie, released recently earlier in 2017 on vinyl, is the latest example of what can be done with a harpsichord and a player who knows what to do with it. Rondeau’s debut, Imagine, was all Johan Sebastian Bach transcriptions, so his dedication to the composer is obviously deeply felt.

This recording, his third,  starts with JS’s complexly layered D minor Concerto (what I consider the Baroque “Emperor”), and the performance is no-nonsense, unfussy and totally absorbing.  Following that is JC’s upbeat Concerto No. 6, which sounds a little like a newly discovered work by Vivaldi, as does the later concerto by WF Bach. Two more concertos by Poppa Bach appear on Dynastie, in the middle and then rounding out the album. Besides being an assured, meat and potatoes interpretation of the highest caliber, it’s also a brief course in music history, ranging from the contrapuntal Baroque style of JS to CPE’s classical, practically middle-period Mozart sound.

Dynastie received an Editor’s Choice Award from Gramophone when it dropped, and I would agree that it’s one of the best classical records of 2017. The harpsichord had never been anything resembling hip, but Rondeau edges pretty damn close to it.

Zimerman & Schubert

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Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 20 & 21 / Krystian Zimerman, piano / 180g, Double LP / Deutsche Grammophon

You have to love Deutsche Grammophon for continuing to issue their new releases on 180g vinyl–possibly the last classical music label to do so. Here, they reunite with Krystian Zimerman after a 20-year hiatus from solo recordings (his previous one was Debussy’s Preludes I and II in 1994). Zimerman’s playing, as usual, is as sensitive as wind on a mercurial midnight ocean.

That ocean is Franz Schubert’s last two piano sonatas. One minute sweet and calm, the next a full-on storm threatening to become a monsoon. Completed, along with No. 19, in a ridiculously short time in 1828, the sonatas are possibly the best inkling of the composer’s Sturm und Drang mindset, with passages of barely contained turmoil coiled in the most melodic of melodies.

Schubert’s solo and chamber pieces are marked by lyricism and turmoil. Subtle key changes and dark effects (the growling trill that interrupts the ponderous opening theme of the D960 sonata) were Schubert’s forte. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the andantino from the D959 Sonata, which starts in a fragmented melancholy and soon breaks loose from all sanity in a spasm of runs, flourishes and trills.

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Zimerman’s is an eloquent, polished recording; he is, after all, a pianist’s pianist. His one-of-a-kind sound (the result of his having built by hand a keyboard for his Steinway) is nothing short of velvety. No one sounds remotely like Zimerman. Because he forgoes all the emotional explosions and abrupt shifts of other pianists, his Schubert is ironically one of the least conventional.

In the molto moderato, with its hints of menace, that opens the D960 Sonata Zimerman’s playing is transcendent (he includes the repeats that some performers choose not to record), handling the abrupt shifts and key changes with exquisite proportionality. And his pellucid, absolutely controlled playing reigns throughout both sonatas. Compared to Alfred Brendel’s somewhat staid rendering on the one hand, and Valery Afanassiev’s slow descent into a hellish maelstrom on the other, Zimerman charts his own fastidious path.

Any inkling to overdramatize is fully contained in an impressionistic approach. It’s probably the most consistent performances of these sonatas to date, ranking up there with Wilhelm Kempff’s intimately raw playing of the cycle for DG (a personal favorite) and Rudolf Serkin’s muscular, extroverted recording on the CBS label. Perhaps a little more fierceness here and there, though, would not have been unwelcome.