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Glenn Gould: "Berg, Schoenberg, Krenek"

img  Tobias Fischer

Even though Canadian Pianist Glenn Gould is chiefly known for his (debatable) status as one the preeminent Bach-Pianist of all time, his campaign in favour of the works of the „Second Viennese School“ - Schönberg, Berg and Webern - can perhaps be considered an even more personal quest. While his taste for Beethoven was subject to wild swings, pieces by these radical maximalists would remain important throughout his entire career and life. Gould even went so far as to produce a TV-program on Schoenberg and couple a recording of the latter's Piano Concerto with Mozart – a feat which was greeted with astonishment rather than outright rejection only because the idea seemed so utterly bewildering that it was probably taken for a clever hoax rather than a statement to be taken seriously. It may be tempting to parallel this preference for „progressive“ tendencies with his unprecedented ability to consistently shock the conservative establishment out of its classical slumber. And yet, there is an intriguing paradox at the heart of Gould's fascination for serialist techniques.

It wasn't so much the future Gould was seeing in Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, after all, but the past. In their works, he discovered a resurgence of all the values and musical forms he held dear and had painfully missed in the Romantics – most notably, counterpoint. Always more of an ascetic than a hedonist, the precision and absolute clarity with which the trio would develop their ideas kindled in him the same excitement as Bach's mid-phase pieces with their mind-expanding movements of linear lines. There was an analytical purity to their oeuvre, which lent itself so well to his trade-mark non-legato play (eschewing the blurry reverb spaces created by extensive pedal use) and a tendency to present musical thoughts in their most reduced and purified form. The good folks at CBS, who surely only agreed to record the entire Schoenberg Piano-catalogue in return for some commercially calculated concessions towards the standard repertory, must have thought his capacities as an agent provocateur to be responsible for wanting to play these pieces, but, against all odds, shock value had nothing to do with it: In the liner notes, Gould refers to Berg's contribution as ranking „among the most auspicious Opus 1's ever written“, while hailing the first Schoenberg track as „a masterpiece“ and the Krenek Sonata as „one of the proudest claims of the contemporary keyboard repertoire“. Without a single doubt, Gould didn't just profoundly respect, but genuinely love this music.

And truth be told, there is every reason to. The one-movement Berg Sonata is a cleverly chosen opener, a riveting journey through a solitary mind ablaze with fear, passion and desire. The first twenty seconds of the piece essentially contain, within their intensely compressed time frame, almost the complete thematic material and the emotional content of the entire experience. Two tentative notes lead into a suspensefully open chord, which is resolved with seeming resignation at first, before the music takes a second, this time more self-confident attempt, resulting in a peaceful denouement. Berg perpetually keeps returning to different elements of this creative cell, resulting in an obsessive, yet mesmerising circle-dance, which Gould is presenting as a rite of passage, a ritual of cleansing: Whatever the protagonist may have been cudgeling his brains for, the seemingly endless coda following the distressed dynamic acme of the piece, with its consoling warmth and suddenly reassuring reprise of the opening motive, suggests the emotional turbulence has not been in vain.

Schoenberg's „Drei Klavierstücke“ are marked by a similar focus on „developing variation“ - i.e. the idea of using a minimal set of themes for the entire work. The second of these pieces is particularly instructive, a hypnotic ostinato bass in the left and a continually changing cycle of craving chords in the right hand serving as recurring markers, even in the all but static time-suspension episode in the middle. Published in the same year as the Berg Sonata, Schoenberg's take on atonality (not a term he would have preferred himself, by the way) starkly differs from that of his pupil: While the carefully planned returns into reassuring territory are safe islands amidst a sea of harmonic palpitations for the former, they are inseparably interlocked with Schoenberg. With all likelihood, it was this duality of two seemingly independent layers creating a sonic entity that was at once shattered and capable of containing multitudes, which fascinated Gould. The Krenek sonata exemplifies this notion in an even more obvious way. The linearity of lines is most startling here and the use of counterpoint and canon lends various instances a bewildering janus-face of past and present, as though medieval polytonality were being squeezed through a 20th century meat grinder. Far from sounding alienating or overly recondite, however, the result has a distinctly tender, playful and, as Gould put it, lyrical feel to it.

Here, the album comes to a natural close: After Berg presented the worlds of tonality and atonality as mutually complementary and Schoenberg tried to merge them into a single texture, Krenek's composition dissolves the last traces of traditional harmony into the infinite lands of serialism. One could consider it a feat of irony that he should end up sounding both like Bach and the Romantics at times. But to Glenn Gould, these cross-temporal references were exactly what awarded these pieces their inescapable pull.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Glenn Gould
Homepage: Sony Classical

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