Review: Wondrous Strange and Beyond the Notes

Edward Greenfield enjoys a contrast of styles in Kevin Bazzana's biography of Glenn Gould, Wondrous Strange, and Susan Tomes's meditation on the art of the piano, Beyond the Notes different approaches to the art of piano playing from Glenn

Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould
by Kevin Bazzana
528pp, Oxford, £25

Beyond the Notes - Journeys with Chamber Music
by Susan Tomes
192pp, Boydell Press, £25

No leading pianist within living memory has been quite so controversial as Glenn Gould. No pianist today has done more towards bonding in the field of chamber music than Susan Tomes. The contrasts between them as artists and interpreters could hardly be greater, something clearly reflected in these two very different books, one a massive biography, the other a series of brilliant essays and diaries. Yet both Gould and Tomes display with the rarest intensity the magical quality which goes beyond the playing of notes, and magnetises the ear in a unique communication.

For one who like me has with few exceptions been disconcerted by Gould's idiosyncratic interpretations while recognising their magnetism, the musicologist Kevin Bazzana gets off to an excellent start in debunking the Glenn Gould cult. He starts with a "Postlude in the form of a Prelude" describing the funeral of Gould, who died prematurely in 1982 when just 50. He goes on to list the often grotesque manifestations of the cult, comparable with those surrounding Elvis Presley since his death.

With sales of Gould's recordings spiralling upwards after his death, and continuing to this day on a more than healthy level, one company executive even suggested that "dying was a great career move". After all, Gould gave up playing in public as early as 1964, concentrating after that on broadcasts and recordings.

Limited as his concert career was, his artistic persona could not have been established more clearly, the strongest evidence of his irresistible charismatic qualities evident from his first appearances in his native Toronto when he was in his early teens. Though he grew up in the most conventional society, he was universally recognised from his early boyhood onwards as a loner and odd-ball. Bazzana speculates without following up the idea that he may have been suffering from Asperger's Syndrome.

Yet Gould generally counted himself to have had a happy childhood, and against all the evidence he rejected to the end the idea of his being eccentric. Though his family represented conventionality, Bazzana fascinatingly lights on an element which is oddly unconventional: the surname was in fact not Gould but Gold. With the family being in the fur business, the assumption must have been worrying in the deeply anti-semitic Toronto of the 1930s that they were Jewish, which they certainly were not.

Very early in his career Gould adopted the curious position at the keyboard that so marked him out. On his instructions, his father had a chair made so low that the pianist's knees were higher than his buttocks, with a back to the chair that made the stance look even more ungainly. With his nose almost on the keyboard, he would then sing along and stamp while he played in a way heard on many of his recordings. From the moment the chair was made, he used it for all his performances until he died, at times transporting it at great expense.

Against all this oddity his magnetism was plain, a pianist with supreme charismatic qualities so wilful and self-obsessed that nothing would deflect him from his idiosyncratic conceptions, inspiring to many but to others putting up barriers between composer and listener. As a sceptic myself, I still marvel at some of the glowing opinions quoted by Bazzana from such great figures as Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber among composers, Karajan, Bernstein, Leinsdorf and Krips among conductors, and even such a great pianist as Arthur Rubinstein. Bazzana's narrative and character study over a vast span reflects the allure of Gould himself. Very well documented, it makes a compelling study even for the non-devotee.

Susan Tomes's book gives you an intensely illuminating picture of the life of a pianist from the inside. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger points out in the foreword, and as many who have read her articles in G2 will already know, she is a brilliant writer. Four of her Guardian articles are reprinted here, including a fascinating one, "Am I too soft?" in which she analyses the role of the pianist in chamber ensembles, noting that in sonatas for violin or cello and piano, the pianist is too often treated as a mere accompanist, something the great Artur Schnabel deplored.

Another of her Guardian articles describes in detail the process of recording Schubert's great E flat Piano Trio, while more generally in greater depth she analyses "the recording process from the performer's point of view", in a lecture given at a conference on recording in Jerusalem in 1998.

Those who have never attended recording sessions may be surprised at all the tiny factors that a recording producer has to take into account when assembling the right "takes" for the finished recording - creaking chairs, planes overhead or pages being turned, which perversely seem to occur in just the takes which include the most successful performances. Frequently too, in chamber music recordings, the different players are each at their best in different takes, and a compromise has to be struck.

More controversially, Tomes suggests that "I don't think that recording is compatible with being musically profound". She argues persuasively that with accuracy and perfection so paramount for work in the studio, everyone is more self-conscious, more selfish too over the primacy of his or her part. Yet increasingly live recordings are being issued and greatly enjoyed, warts and all, which suggests that communication is even more important than perfection with many if not most listeners. The inner quality that one finds in a great performance of a late Beethoven slow movement, for example, so difficult to achieve in a studio performance, may with luck be captured live.

Whether performing live or in a studio recording, Tomes has the extraordinary gift of magnetising the ear through her touch at the keyboard and the individual way she phrases. She has only to play a note and one's attention is caught, and unlike Gould she does it without distracting you from what the composer is seeking to say: she is simply heightening the message, taking the music-making to a higher plane "beyond the notes".

It is a quality that comes out in all her recordings, and though her partners in the two chamber groups with which she has been most closely associated, the piano quartet, Domus, and the Florestan Piano Trio, are all fine musicians, in my experience the recordings establish her primacy, achieved not with anything like aggression but naturally, with evident ease. The first half of the book in two sets of diary entries tells you about the nuts and bolts of working in those two groups. Founded in 1980, Domus had the revolutionary idea of devising its own portable performing space, a geodesic dome with struts fitted together, which the players themselves could set up wherever they went, rather like a circus-tent. It was also radical at the time to talk to the audience beforehand, and perhaps their example has led to that becoming more and more an element in chamber concerts and solo recitals.

Their aim was to take music to a wider audience, yet the diaries, covering the years 1981-3, tellingly reveal what formidable problems and frustrations they faced. After five years they abandoned the dome and resorted to playing in conventional halls. The group continued for another 10 years until 1995, when disagreements combined with the limited piano quartet repertory - involving a core of only 10 works, which were the ones most regularly asked for - persuaded them to call it a day.

By happy chance, soon after, Tomes and the Domus cellist, Richard Lester, met up with the violinist Anthony Marwood, and after an informal rehearsal together, which found them in total musical sympathy, they formed the Florestan Trio. That has had similar success to Domus, and benefits greatly from having a much bigger core repertory. Tomes finds that working in a trio is socially easier than in a quartet, with music-making more readily the sole focus. If the Domus diaries were written in part to rid the writer of frustrations, those with the Florestan Trio are voyages of discovery, limited to diaries that Tomes kept on tours to Japan in 2000 (often very funny) and to Ireland, Australia and New Zealand in 2001. Just as she magnetises with her playing, so too with her words.


Edward Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

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