`Glenn Gould Reader' -- as surprising as the maverick pianist himself

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The music world remembers Glenn Gould as a maverick, an innovator, an impassioned artist, and a spunky wit. Now the book world can remember him the same way. ``The Glenn Gould Reader,'' edited by Tim Page (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, $20), brings together more than 400 pages of essays, reviews, musings, and interviews by the late pianist. It's a varied book, packing as many surprises as a hefty pile of Gould recordings. At the typewriter as at the keyboard, Gould loved to be provocative, and there's something here to raise every eyebrow. Some samples:

Beethoven's reputation is ``based entirely on gossip,'' and such popular works as the Fifth Symphony and the ``Emperor'' Concerto lack ``almost every criterion'' that Gould looks for in good music.

Mozart's mediocrity would have been less profound if his brief life had been even briefer, says Gould, who wondered as early as his student days how ``presumably sane adults'' could rate some Mozart piano works as musical treasures.

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In a more positive vein, Gould writes that Richard Strauss will ``gather a greater admiration than he ever knew'' through future recordings of his music, and that Arnold Schoenberg will someday be lauded as ``one of the greatest composers who ever lived.''

And lest he sound like an elitist, Gould confesses himself ``a Streisand freak'' and spends pages analyzing a Petula Clark ditty he heard on his car radio.

However one feels about all this, ``The Glenn Gould Reader'' is a lively book, full of pungent opinions backed up with sassy wordplay as well as technical jargon. The very titles of Gould's articles make heady reading, whether he's musing on ``The Dodecaphonist's Dilemma,'' probing a ``Data Bank on the Upward-Scuttling Mahler,'' or discussing music and TV under the heading ``Oh, for heaven's sake, Cynthia, there must be something else on!''

And throughout the book one finds touchstones of Gould's own musical personality. One is his humility before figures as different as Bach, a universal giant, and Stokowski, a personal hero. Another is his preference for the ``creative cheating'' of phonograph records over the ``vaudevillian'' atmosphere of concert halls. His passion for technology is expressed often. So is his contempt for all manifestations of competitive thinking, including concertos (soloist vs. orchestra in a show-off contest) and even the interplay of themes in sonata-allegro compositions.

Since they were written for a variety of magazines, radio programs, and other channels, how did Gould's essays find a handsomely printed ``reader'' as a home? The credit goes to Tim Page, a music critic for the New York Times and classical disc jockey for New York's leading public-radio station, WNYC-FM.

A man of words and music alike, Mr. Page discussed the idea of a compilation more than once with Gould during his lifetime, finding him receptive but cautious. Shortly after Gould's death in 1982, Page approached his estate and obtained access to cartons of written Gouldiana, which he sorted through carefully.

Reading many unpublished pieces, he decided most of them ``should remain that way.'' He then cast a choosy eye on the ones that had seen print, picking an assortment that wouldn't hit the same themes too often -- a delicate task, since Gould ``was not above recycling a paragraph or two'' from one article to another.

What drew Page and Gould together in the first place? A longtime admirer of Gould's performances, Page met the artist via a telephone interview in 1980. They hit it off immediately, Page told me recently, partly because of shared tastes -- for the music of Sibelius and the capacities of the media to present music, among other things.

A person of many contradictions, Gould turned out to be an odd friend. Although he was something of a recluse with nocturnal habits, his love affair with technology included the telephone. At least once a week Page received long, chatty calls at late, drowsy hours. ``A very short one lasted half an hour,'' Page reports. But he adds that Gould was a cheery talker, with great humor and enthusiasm. Indeed, the pianist's manner could be almost childlike -- as when he insisted on regaling Page with a witty Stokowski essay he had just written and was very proud of.

When he eventually met Gould in person, Page confirmed his impression of a brilliant but eccentric artist. ``He came to the door wearing two coats and a slouch hat -- this was in August -- and unshaven,'' recalls Page. This image tallies with the Gould photos that appear on many record jackets, giving him a brooding and Byronic look. Yet the inner Gould was quite the opposite, Page says. ``You wouldn't guess it from the way he often looked, but he was the merriest of companions -- a funny, warm, effervescent, gentle, deeply caring person.''

Other paradoxes marked Gould, too. ``He was driven in a lot of ways, and yet tried not to be,'' Page says. ``He had a tremendous ego, yet a yearning to transcend it. That's one reason why competition was his b^ete noir.''

Was the great pianist just being devilish in his more outrageous moments, as some of his critics have suggested? ``At times he absolutely was,'' says Page. ``There was a side of him that was a mischievous, bratty, brilliant little kid who never grew up. A lot of his defenders can't admit that.

``But I think those defenders actually diminish him,'' Page adds. ``There was a seriousness even to Gould's mischief. He just couldn't do anything without doing it in some unusual or creative way.''

How does Page rate his friend's piano playing, which is as controversial -- and as mischievous, at times -- as his personality? ``He was a fantastic technician,'' says Page. ``I don't think even Horowitz had a more incredible technique. He could play anything, and do it brilliantly. He also had a questing and innovative way of looking at music.

``He did make disastrous recordings -- not just bad, but genuinely awful. Yet even these are awful in an interesting way. At least he was thinking about the music . . . and questing for something, trying to hear it differently. And at his best he took the listener to an incredible depth. . . .''

More of Page's insights into Gould can be found in the first volume of the CBS Masterworks album ``Glenn Gould's Bach, Vol. 1,'' which includes a perky Gould-Page interview on the ``Goldberg'' Variations, along with two recordings of that piece. Other recent CBS issues include Vol. 2 of the Gould-Bach series, including the French Suites; and the first volume of a projected ``Glenn Gould Legacy'' series, including three discs of Bach and a bonus conversation on the subject of ``Glenn Gould, Concert Drop-Out.''

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