CD: Glenn Gould, The Original Jacket Collection

(Sony, 80 CDs)

Even by today's standards of ever more comprehensive classical reissues, this is a massive and unmissable collection. Every recording Glenn Gould made for Columbia/CBS is presented in the same couplings as on the original LPs and packaged within the original album designs, which generally include sleeve notes, some of them facetious, by the pianist himself. Love him or loathe him, Gould's position in the history of classical recording in the second half of the 20th century is unique. He gave up concert performing in 1964, yet continued to record prodigiously; no other performer of his era devoted themselves so completely to the medium, or believed so fervently in its potential.

So it's fascinating and exhilarating to revisit the sound documents of this extraordinary career, which as far as CBS was concerned began with Gould's celebrated 1955 version of Bach's Goldberg Variations, and ended with his debut as a conductor, in Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, recorded with the Toronto in September 1982, three weeks before his death at the age of 50. That last performance is included here on one of two bonus discs; the other contains an interview Gould gave to the critic Tim Page when his second recording of the Goldberg Variations was released in 1981. It's an interview that for all its staginess somewhat undercuts the conventional image of Gould as an eccentric sociopath, as well as giving fascinating insights into the way in which he worked out the fine detail of his interpretations.

It is a hugely diverse catalogue, too, not only chronologically - it stretches from William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons right up to a trio of pieces by the 20th-century Canadian composers Oskar Morawetz, Istvan Anhalt and Jacques Hétu - but in the obscure corners of the piano literature to which Gould's insatiable intellectual curiosity regularly took him. There are performances here of sonatas by Grieg, Krenek, Sibelius, Hindemith and Richard Strauss, as well as Hindemith's sonatas for brass and piano, and Strauss's melodrama Enoch Arden, with the actor Claude Raines as the reciter - though, curiously, that disc does not include the three Ophelia Songs Gould recorded with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with which it was at one time coupled.

It would be wrong to pretend that everything is on the same exalted level as Gould's almost miraculously articulate playing of Bach, which occupies 25 of these discs and includes both the early and the more contemplative late performances of the Goldberg, one of the few works he recorded more than once. Mozart was a particular blind spot - Gould once claimed the composer had died too late rather than too early - and the four albums of sonatas here, as well as a performance of the C minor Piano Concerto, are rather perfunctory affairs that no one would want to hear too often. In Beethoven - included here are the five concertos, a generous selection of the sonatas, and Liszt's piano transcription of the Fifth Symphony - the performances are variable, while Gould's Brahms can be a bit of an acquired taste, too; they are more successful in a typically quirky selection of the late intermezzos recorded at the beginning of Gould's career than in the over-deliberate performances of the Op 10 Ballades and the Op 79 Rhapsodies from near its end.

But it was always contrapuntal music that captured Gould's imagination most vividly. Hence the enthusiasm for Hindemith - which includes a disc devoted to the rarely heard song cycle Das Marienleben - and his contribution to Columbia's pioneering Schoenberg edition from the 1960s, in which Gould plays all the solo piano music as well as the concerto, and accompanies all the songs. Many of these are genuinely historic recordings, but then this compelling set is full of such treasures, and at less than £2 per disc it is a wonderful bargain.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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