Glenn Gould’s Uncommon Approach to Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata

By Michael Thibodeau (University of Toronto)

Author’s note:  The following adapts material from the second chapter of my dissertation, which can be found here.

Glenn Gould’s relationship with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata is often overlooked.  Indeed, he recorded the work eight times between 1952 and 1974 in a variety of circumstances:  live and studio recordings, radio and television broadcasts, and a documentary.

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Glenn Gould’s recordings of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata

As I will show, these recordings bear witness to significant shifts in the pianist’s aesthetic.  This post focuses on Gould’s uncommon approach to manual asynchrony and tempo in these recordings, with the hope of encouraging further discussion about performance practice.

Most pianists are familiar with the stigma surrounding what is colloquially known as ‘breaking’:  the vertical separation of harmonic and melodic material in performance.  I can recall one instance in graduate school where I was cautioned for using it.  My teacher reminded me that it was not 1940 and told me a story about an old pedagogue who warned against its occurrence more than once during a lifetime.  This position may seem extreme (and it is), but it reflects current fashion in performance.  In the introduction to Neal Peres da Costa’s monograph Off the Record, musicologist Clive Brown argues that the device’s scarcity in contemporary practice is symptomatic of a modern misunderstanding:  “an extreme example of the ways in which the implicit meaning of the notation fell victim to an unhistorical conviction that fidelity to the composer’s intentions required the most scrupulous literal observance of the notated text.”

Many instances of manual asynchrony in Gould’s recordings flout common practice.  A particularly noteworthy example occurs in his 1974 Chemins de la musique performance during the development section.  In measure 101, Gould sounds the melody’s opening pitch twice:  first with the bass and then as the final note of the (notated) arpeggio.

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Berg, Piano Sonata, mm. 100–102 annotated to show Gould’s manual asynchrony (the caesura and arpeggio are marked in Berg’s score)

Gould’s motivation likely stems from the dominant-function harmony in the preceding measure.  Despite the notated caesura, Gould is compelled to continue the melody upwards so that it sounds at the same time as the left hand’s tonic.  Gould is consistent with this decision later in measures 103, 105, and 106 where variations of the same material occur.

In measure 102 (see score above), Gould again chooses an unconventional asynchrony.  Of the three numbered pitches (C/A/D#), the middle note is sounded last, resulting in the performance order:  C/D#/A. The purpose of this choice is to highlight the inner voice which begins on A, repeats, and then continues upwards to F# and F♮.  Alfred Brendel’s more conventional performance allows us to put Gould’s creative approach into context.

Gould’s use of manual asynchrony allows him to articulate contrapuntal material with great flexibility.  His recordings demonstrate, in practice, how the work is underdetermined by its score.  Pianists could learn from Gould’s novel applications of manual asynchrony, which represent compelling solutions for highlighting contrapuntal lines.

Gould had a penchant for reconsidering tempos, as is well known from his 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations.  But a remarkable increase in length also occurs across Gould’s recordings of Berg’s sonata, with the opening theme witnessing the greatest change.  On CBC radio in 1952 Gould plays the phrase in 12.36 seconds.  A notable increase occurs through his next four recordings, until 1958 in Stockholm where it is completed in 25.10 seconds.  Gould’s final recording, from 1974, is the longest at 28.57 seconds.  The total increase between the first and last recording is a dramatic 131.15 percent—more than double the initial length.  To situate Gould’s performances alongside common practice, here is Murray Perahia’s 1987 recording.  The aggressive nature of the first phrase’s growth displays Gould’s search for the limit of possibility.  Indeed, the expansion is non-linear and displays a logarithmic trend, meaning that it is inversely exponential:

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The increasing length of Gould’s first phrase displayed as a logarithmic trend.

To spur discussion on these topics, I advance the following questions:

First, what should we think about the disappearance of manual asynchrony from common practice?  Have we lost the full expressive potency of revered works?  While the application of the device in Gould’s performance is undoubtedly brilliant, could we ever tolerate again a performance style that involves the dislocation of harmony and melody?

Second, Gould’s continuous reassessment of the work’s tempo demonstrates a restless interpretative search and a dissatisfaction with the habitual.  Should students be encouraged to reconsider their approach when revisiting a work, and can these interpretations reside safely inside of common practice?

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