he first time I played the new Glenn Gould disc …And Serenity, I was bored. The second time, I became annoyed. By the time it was finished, I had figured out why: except for Gould, everyone involved with …And Serenity obviously put their integrity on hold. This disc is just another hack job thrown together by some mid-level oafs at Sony whose only interest in Gould is how much cash can be gained from pimping his legacy.
The execs couldn’t ruin performances that were already recorded, so they screwed up in the only other ways they could: the packaging and the sound. In the disc’s liner notes, journalist David Toop (author of Rap Attack) strokes buyers on the chin with self-congratulatory tripe, praising them for having the good taste to buy the disc in the first place. Take a look:
“Gould’s dismissal of certain composers could be intellectually persuasive or amusingly perverse, yet at some subterranean level . . . he seemed to be guided by an instinct in search of the serene. …Mutations, approximations and cheap imitations of this serenity surround us now, many of them provoking…the glazed look of a person tranquilized into submission. We can only imagine the fun Glenn Gould’s sharp, skeptical mind would have had with the imposters.”Oh, right: there sit the Gould-o-philes, in their drawing rooms, taking a cultivated breather that’s just a little too refined for everyone else. And you’re invited; just buy this disc! It’s the sort of classist, exclusionary marketing that just makes the smarty-pants feel smarter, insults everybody else and tells no one anything about Gould, the composers or the music. I’m sure Toop could’ve done better. It’s a shame that he didn’t try.
The sonic values of …And Serenity are no less of an affront. The production is completely uneven, with transitions from one piece to the next bombarding listeners like a TV commercial that’s twice as loud as the show. Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with the performances here, except perhaps that they’re too strong to serve as handmaidens to a chill-out. Gould’s interpretation of Strauss’s “Sonata for Piano in B Minor, Op. 5 II. Adagio cantabile” is particularly noteworthy; the piece moves at a slow, majestic gait sounding overwhelmed by nostalgia, and Gould milks it for all it’s worth, leaving you either enraptured or bawling your eyes out. All of the pieces on ……And Serenity share a similar quality of provoking your interest, emotions and, if you’re bowled over by anyone playing classical piano without screwing up, awe. But if it’s serenity you want, then pour yourself some white zinfandel and crank up the Eno.
Glenn Gould deserves better treatment than this. Gould was a brilliant, sporadically charming genius whose obsessive-compulsive crankiness belied any musical expressions of serenity. He was a concert pianist who feared and loathed the stage (read Gould’s 1962 essay “Let’s Ban Applause” for insights into his disdain for the performer/audience dynamic). His performing posture was so bad that it ultimately undermined his ability to play. Near the end of his life, Gould was a raging hypochondriac who saw three doctors simultaneously (unbeknownst to each of them) and hopped willy-nilly through enough medications for hypertension, joint inflammation and stomach aches to put Rush Limbaugh’s recent one-note addiction to shame. “[I]nstinct for the serene,” my eye; more like an appetite for infarction.
Early in the 20th century, the German composer Arnold Schoenberg was asked a question by one of his students about the difference between contemporary French and German music. Schoenberg was a founder of the twelve-tone method of composition, a method rejected by most French composers of the time. His reply to the student’s question was blunt: “Either what the French do is music or what we do is music. But both cannot be music.” As Schoenberg felt about music, so should anyone who cares about it feel about how it is marketed. Applying this logic, discs like …And Serenity are either well-meaning compilations of good music or craptastic pieces of trash that sully the reputations of all involved. I believe the latter; Sony does not. Coming in 2004: Well-Tempered Caviar: Glenn Gould’s Four-Course Favorites.
Reviewed by: Chris deMaagd
Reviewed on: 2003-11-24
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