A “lurker” on a classical music forum on which we occasionally post links to pertinent articles on Sounds & Fury — a forum on which there are almost always raised outraged cries of the you’re crazy sort directed against us whenever the subject of those articles is Glenn Gould, the piano versus the harpsichord for the performance of the Baroque keyboard rep, or the proper performance of Bach’s keyboard works — asks:
You’ve often praised to the skies the Bach performances of Landowska and Gould, yet the Bach performances of those two artists are worlds apart. It seems to me, at least, that to someone such as yourself who seems to have a rigid opinion of what constitutes correct Bach performance that if you loved the one, you would at least dislike or disapprove of the other. How do you explain cheerleading for both?
Excellent question, and we confess we never gave much thought to the apparent discrepancy because in our mind there’s none.
While it’s true that the performances of Bach’s keyboard works by these two extraordinary keyboard artists are quite different, they’re hardly “worlds apart,” as my correspondent put it, despite the fact that Landowska performed almost exclusively on the harpsichord, and Gould, the piano. Worlds apart would be the Bach performances of pianists such as, say, Sviatoslav Richter or András Schiff (to mention two names that came up in the current forum brouhaha on this subject) and the performances of either Landowska or Gould. The former two are 20th- and 21st-century pianistic readings and everything untoward that implies, while the latter two are readings that, in their own ways, are unvaryingly true to and deeply respectful of the period of the works’ creation and the instrument for which the works were originally written, and true to and deeply respectful of the architectural and musical demands of the music itself which argue forcefully against the sort of anachronistic pianistic “expressivity” that almost all pianists seem incapable of eschewing in the performance of these keyboard works; works written principally for, and fully aware and exploitative of the idiomatic qualities of, instruments incapable of such “expressivity”: the single- and double-manual harpsichord (I omit the clavichord from inclusion here as that curious instrument, which has charms peculiar to itself alone, was in the time of Bach used largely in the home and for the most part by amateur dabblers and therefore was not a principal concern of Bach’s, and exclude as well the organ as it’s a separate case altogether).
We said above that the readings of Bach’s keyboard works by Landowska and Gould are very different (but not “worlds apart”), the readings by the former being what might be (and have pejoratively been) called “Romantic” (upper case R) even “gothic,” as we put it in this article on Landowska’s reading of the Well-Tempered Clavier; and the readings by the latter, “uncannily pure,” “precise,” and “lean-and-mean” as we put it in the same article.
Considering the instrument chosen by each of these artists for their performance of these works, that sounds almost contradictory, does it not? One would have expected exactly the opposite to obtain: Gould’s piano readings being the more “Romantic,” and Landowska’s harpsichord readings, the more “uncannily pure,” “precise,” and “lean-and-mean.” A moment’s reflection, however, instantly dissolves the contradiction.
Landowska was, in a sense, “protected” by her instrument of choice, and could therefore attempt her so-called-but-not-really “Romantic” phrasings and registrations knowing that her instrument would automatically ensure she could do nothing that could not have been done by the instruments for which this music was principally written. Not so with Gould and his instrument of choice. He knew that had he attempted to follow Landowska’s approach, his instrument would have instantly betrayed him and made his readings sound truly Romantic — the fate of almost every other pianist who has attempted to eat his Baroque cake and have it too.
By the above en passant musing we do not mean to suggest that’s the reason for the approach taken by each of these two artists. Their very different readings are, of course, the result of their very different visions of this music. By the above we meant only to resolve the apparent contradiction of one’s failed expectations concerning these two artists and their chosen instruments.
So, then, what is it about these two very different readings that permits us to “prais[e] [both] to the skies” without hesitation or any sense of discrepancy?
Well, the answer has already been given above; viz., that the readings by both Landowska and Gould are “unvaryingly true to and deeply respectful of the period of the works’ creation and the instrument for which the works were originally written, and true to and deeply respectful of the architectural and musical demands of the music itself” — qualities lacking in one respect or another in the readings of these works by almost all modern-day pianists. Further, the readings by both these artists are invariably realized with stellar virtuosic artistry, technical and musical. What is there not to “prais[e] to the skies” in both readings?
We confess, however, that we sense a deeper difference between the readings of these two great artists; a difference not adequately expressed by adjectives such as “Romantic” and “lean-and-mean,” and one, we’re afraid, that can’t be expressed in objective or rational terms. And that is that while Landowska’s readings are profoundly and richly affecting, Gould’s reveal the transcendent core of the music; that which transcends even the music’s earthly profundity and considerable earthly beauty. With Gould’s Bach readings it’s as if, through the music, there existed but a one-degree-of-separation connection between Gould and the Divine source. The connection goes: Bach to the Divine source and Gould to the innermost musical mind of Bach; ergo, one degree of separation between Gould and the Divine source.
We freely admit that’s not the sort of thing a conservatory trained musician ought to be saying; is even the sort of thing such a one ought to be ashamed and embarrassed to say. But as Amadeus’s Emperor Joseph was wont to declare, “There it is.”
And so it is, and we’re not the least inclined to make apology for it.