Gould and the Piano
GLENN GOULD WAS a pianist. This is, of course, ludicrously to state the obvious, yet it is worth emphasizing the point, for there have been persistent efforts, especially since his death, to exaggerate his achievements in other realms, sometimes at the expense of his piano playing. (It is certainly telling, given the age and size of the posthumous literature, that I am writing the first monograph in English on Gould as a performer.) Gould himself must accept some of the blame: he was always dismissing his instrument of choice as a mere workhorse, denigrating its idiomatic resources, ignoring large parts of its repertoire. But his disingenuous claims to the effect that he was a writer, composer, and broadcaster who played the piano in his spare time can only be taken as tongue-in-cheek polemic--or wishful thing--for he gave performances that testified in every measure to pianistic gifts of the highest order. He was a pianist who imported a wide variety of ideas, musical and non-musical, into his métier, not a philosopher who happened to express himself through the piano. He may have preferred the latter view of himself, and some in the Gould literature have accepted it uncritically. But thirty years' practice could not make him a better than mediocre writer, while he was, from the beginning of his career, as fluent, accomplished, and natural a pianist as there ever was. We need only watch him play once to recognize an almost effortless mastery of the instrument. And we need only listen to him recall lovingly his boyhood Chickering, or detail endlessly the technical minutiae of his favourite Steinway (he was as fussy as Horowitz or Michelangeli or Kuerti about playing his own, specially adjusted instrument), to realize how much he needed the piano--and not just any piano, the right piano--to express his ideas. Even at his most pianistically eccentric, even where he seems almost desperate to convince himself and his listeners that he is doing anything other than playing a piano, there is never a doubt that he is truly at home on the piano, and only there. He may in fact have been the most pianistic of pianists, not the least--the pianist with the most intimate, not the most remote, relationship to the piano. As Jacques Drillon, the most vocal opponent of the cliché view of Gould as a kind of 'anti-pianist', put it, there was no happier pianist.
And yet, there remains a grain of truth in Gould's insistence on separating himself from the piano--or, at least, 'the piano' in the sense of conventional pianism. His idealism, his obsession with 'structure', his lack of interest in idiomatic piano