GLENN GOULD – The String Quartet

Canadian pianist and sometime Contemporary composer Glenn Herbert Gould [1932–1982] wrote one string quartet, his Opus No. 1.

I have long been a fan of Glenn Gould as a pianist – his Bach playing introduced me to the world of classical piano and particularly, 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Krenek and Hindemith. Unfortunately, some of his other playing reminds me of a song about a little girl that I learned as a child – Gould’s Beethoven Sonatas are bad and his Mozart is horrid! He desperately wanted to be a composer but only created a handful of completed works. His brilliant pianism and his eccentric personality made him one of the more interesting musicians of the 20th century. I have read at least five Gould biographies – such a fascinating life.

The work under discussion opens with a droning chord sustained by the ensemble, as a lone violin expresses a continuous long tone, creating a feeling that to me, strangely enough, sounds quite like a British Early Modern style, with a fabulous sound space. The drone ceases and a sustained second violin is left to support the lamenting first violin. The ensemble now comes into play with a series of strong dissonant chords before leading into a powerful cello passage with various voices supporting it – this is a serious mood. The cello continues to dominate, even in the background as various, sometimes dissonant lines are expressed by the violins, while occasional viola pizzicato statements can be heard. Now the music moves into a lilting passage that features a melody that I recognise, but just can’t place at present, it may be Robert Schumann. Moving from this section a Romantic passage unfolds and the cello is especially prominent here – its raw tone cutting through the ensemble.

This Romantic feeling is maintained for a time, gradually becoming more modern as the violins drift in and out of dissonance, evoking both Krenek and Hindemith in style. The mood is strong, with a sense of chaos prevalent. The intensity continues to increase and the sound is very powerful until a change leads into a milder, melodically driven passage. Now a new, conservative melody emerges, with the violins musing over sensitive ensemble harmonies. This doesn’t last for long and a solo cello moment signals a return to a slow, sensitive feeling. The cello however, is persistent and again is heard solo for a time until a very measured slightly dissonant passage unfolds, with great feeling. Sustained tones are now the focus, especially from a deep cello which leads into a sparse feeling of abstraction, slowly introducing the violins, which become more dominant as they develop a rich harmonic canvas.

The music is now firmly in the Early Modern mould of Hindemith, Krenek and Schoenberg as dissonant sections are constantly presented, to varying effect. The intensity now increases and the texture is quite dense. Surging violins create a wall of dissonance which eventually abates, leading to a measured section with attractive melodies and finally back to a solo cello. Out of this arises a strutting passage, again, slightly abstract and I hear a hint of that Schumann-like melody before the music becomes dense and dissonant again. The composer seems to be searching for a purpose here and finally settles on a quiet, mellow passage. This is replaced by a series of strongly harmonised cello and violin lines, at a skipping tempo.

Nearing the end, for the first time I am getting the feeling that the composer is running out of ideas. More quiet passages are presented, before again moving on to a more powerful section which leads into a dominant cello passage, with ensemble murmurings in the background. The violins eventually become more expressive but the background feeling persists. Another solo cello moment occurs and the music is beginning to sound a bit aimless to the point of stalling. Now the violins explode into action with strong lines before two dissonant flourishes and a strong chord conclude the work.

Interestingly, Gould does not sustain moods for long, he always seems to be moving forward, and, never seems to return to develop previous themes. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to be able to make up his mind about a coherent style, constantly oscillating between Late Romantic musings and modernist episodes. Apparently it took Gould three years of working on this piece, before he released it for publication. While it has many interesting moments, especially if you are fond of Early Modernism as I am, it seems to lack coherency or structural unity. Having said that, it is definitely interesting enough to be worth a listen, especially for Gould obsessives, of which there are many.

The other work on the review CD is a string quartet arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a piece which will always be associated with Gould as it was his first commercial recording, the success of which instantly launched him onto the world concert stages. This arrangement appears to be based on Gould’s 1955 recording, which is an extremely short and almost frenzied rendition of the work.

This CD, titled Bach/Gould Project, on the Azica label and performed by the Catalyst Quartet is available on Amazon US and UK.

It is available to be heard on Spotify and YouTube. There are also four versions on earsense.

Listenability: I just had to have it.

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