I've on a number of occasions over the course of Sounds & Fury waxed both poetic and technical on Glenn Gould's readings of Bach's keyboard works (that is, poetic to the extent possible by a non-poet, and performance-technical to the extent possible by one lacking any formal training on a keyboard instrument) in an attempt to express just what it is that makes a Gould reading of these works the sui generis thing it plainly is even to untrained ears, and also in an attempt to get at just what it is that makes these readings sui generis (and I do not speak here about those Bach readings by Gould which find him operating in wiseass, épater les bourgeois, look-what-I-can-do mode (infrequent), but about those Bach readings which make up the bulk of his readings of these nonpareil keyboard works), and can't help but conclude I've in large part failed in my attempt at the latter.
Lately, I've taken to playing various selections from Gould's recordings of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier while lying in bed just before going off to sleep for the night; not to lull me asleep, but because I find it puts me in a state of mind in which my listening becomes largely unmoderated by critical or analytic thought which state I find pleasurable if mildly unnatural, and a most satisfyingly relaxing way to end a day. And strange to tell, it was during one of these listening sessions that I think I discovered the secret to what it is that's at the technical (as opposed to interpretive) heart of what makes a Gould Bach reading the sui generis thing that it is.
It's almost immediately apparent to any close listener that Gould's Bach readings are remarkable for their almost uncanny delineation of the works' horizontal (melodic) contrapuntal lines while the proper vertical (harmonic) interlacing of those lines is fully maintained. What's not immediately apparent is just what it is about that delineation that strikes one as uncanny and so unlike that of any other pianist — at least any other pianist of my experience.
It's an almost second-nature mental device of mine — one I've employed hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in my life when listening to any musical work — to isolate for attention a single horizontal musical line of the score whether it be the principal melodic line or a line of the surrounding counterpoint, and follow that line through whole paragraphs of the composition before shifting attention back to the full musical fabric of the piece or to another single horizontal line. (A single horizontal musical line is the maximum that can be singled out for attention in that way by humans. Imagining one can simultaneously single out more than a single horizontal musical line for that sort of attention is a mere illusion produced by one's unconscious rapid-fire shifting of attention from one line to another.)
As it's a natural, so to speak, it should then come as no surprise I've done that an uncountable number of times over the years while listening to Gould's Bach readings. This time, however, something struck me about Gould's performance of these works that had previously escaped my conscious perception. And that is that no matter what interior horizontal line I chose to isolate for attention in that way at any point in the performance, and no matter how dense or complex the surrounding counterpoint, that line was not only articulated perfectly and at the proper dynamic, but played with such perfect effortlessness it was as if it were being played by a pianist who had nothing else to do with his fingers but play that single line alone.
But this is impossible technically, isn't it? Yet there it is. With any other pianist of my experience performing these works, if one isolates any single interior horizontal line for attention in that way, one is always aware the pianist's fingers have things to do other than to play that single line. Some sense of effort is always apparent and affecting the articulation of that line no matter how subtly. With Gould, however, that sense of effort is simply absent, and the perfect articulation of that line unmarred and unimpeded. And it's no trick accomplished by recording engineers as it's immediately apparent in the isolation of any single interior horizontal line at almost any point one chooses to isolate it for that sort of attention.
No wonder, then, that listening in the normal way to Gould's readings of these works one feels that the delineation of the works' contrapuntal lines with their proper contrapuntal and harmonic interlacing fully maintained has something of the uncanny about it. It's a direct result of Gould's keen awareness of the importance of each of those lines in both the contrapuntal and harmonic fabric of the work, and of that impossible technical mastery of his instrument which allowed him to realize both to their fullest; a technical keyboard capacity which, it seems, Gould and Gould alone possessed — in these works at least.
How fortunate for us Gould lived at a time when the permanent capturing of such miracles on tape or other medium was possible and so was preserved to be heard by any and all even in the remotest future and at the remotest reaches of the globe.
Would the same had been true for certain other legendary music prodigies of the past.