Glenn Gould - Ecstasy & Tragedy of a Genius (Paper) (Anglais) Broché – 17 septembre 1998
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And therein lies my greatest reservation about this book. Ostwald writes as though he wishes us to believe that he and Gould were very close friends (despite the fact that he is describing a man who, sadly, seems never to have been truly close to anyone outside his family) but this idea is belied by the facts. Ostwald's last meeting with his subject was some years before Gould died: and he mentions that even that meeting took place after a gap of several years. They had some disagreement at this final meeting and it appears that subsequently Gould cut off all communication beteween them. And this , alas, seems to have affected Ostwald's attitude towards his subject; despite the protestations of friendship and admiration, there is an undertone of bitterness and resentment throughout the book that shows in the writing, as of a friend scorned. No; this book certainly does not leave the reader with the impression that the two men were ever truly close. Despite this, though, it is an informative book, and will interest many, especially - but not only! -those who find Gould's music incomparable . But perhaps it is best not to trust all the conclusions that the author draws; when it comes to Glenn Gould, we will probably never know the man's heart.
For many reasons Peter Ostwald appears to have borne something of a grudge against Glenn Gould.
There is some explanation for this. For example, at one point, Gould allegedly dismissed Ostwald's earlier biography of Schumann with "why don't you write a book about a really important musician". But this is after Ostwald insults Gould's recording (with Laredo) of the Bach violin and keyboard sonatas.
Additionally, it is true that their friendship cooled over the years, to the point that, in the last five years of Gould's life, they were not in contact at all. Ostwald implies Gould's interest in him was motivated by a desire to mooch off him in a professional capacity, by getting Ostwald, a psychiatrist, to endorse his hypochondriacal excuses for cancelling concerts, and that once Gould understood Ostwald wasn't about to play ball, Gould ended the friendship.
It would be nice if Gould could present his side of the story. The tacit implication is that there could be no other reason for not wishing to be Ostwald's friend. Well, I can think of a few. Ostwald's descriptions of Gould often fairly drip with disdain. It is clear that they disagree on many personal and aesthetic levels. In the end it doesn't seem Ostwald liked Gould much. He has little good to say about his character, or even his recordings. It is hard to see what an enduring friendship was supposed to be based upon.
Ostwald's musical comments are, on occasion, strikingly naive for a music biographer, and in at least one respect grossly in error. For example, he dismisses Gould/Laredo's brilliant recording of the Bach violin sonatas, but praises Gould/Menuhin's recording of the c minor sonata as "a flawless rendition". Objectively, their rendition is anything but "flawless". Menuhin's tone and attack are off throughout the entire piece. But even ignorning Menuhin's technical problems, the musicians don't seem to be in synch interpretively, and their performance is wooden and dull.
When Gould dismisses Mozart's great G minor symphony, Ostwald asks "Had Glenn ever listened to the late viola quartets. How could anyone 'hate' such sublime music?" Well, why evoke the viola quartets after Gould has dismissed K. 550?? Isn't it far harder (or at least as hard) to understand why anyone would hate K. 550?
Ostwald has much company in criticizing Gould's Well Tempered Clavier, but he complains only of Gould's broken chords (a trivial criticism). He then goes on to praise Gould's recording of the Liszt-Beethoven 5th symphony as an example of Gould's ability to "toe the line" and "to play with authentic respect for the composer". But this recording is extremely wayward and eccentric, even for Gould. What could Ostwald have been thinking?
Ostwald does praise both of Gould's studio recordings of the Goldberg variations, and (correctly, IMO) argues that both have their virtues. But he unwittingly diplays shocking ignorance when he remarks on page 318 (re: Monsaingeon's filmed version of the Goldbergs) that "...Glenn's hands are often jittery--see for example variation 17...". This piqued my curiosity, so I popped the DVD in the player for a look. Gould's hands are steady as a rock in variation 17. Again, I had to ask myself what Ostwald was thinking. It then hit me, he must not know the correct number of the variation.... On a hunch I looked at *track* 18 of the DVD. Track 18 is where variation 17 would be found if the DVD began numbering tracks with the opening aria. But there is some biographical footage and a short interview which occupy tracks 1 and 2. Hence, all variations are "off" by 3. The aria is on track 3. Var 1 is on track 4, and so on.... This means track 18 is, in fact, variation 15. Indeed Gould's hands *are* shaking in this variation.
This must seem very trivial, but it isn't. Every student of the Goldbergs must know variation 15 from the others. For one, it is the first of Bach's minor key variations, and it occupies a crucial point in the structure of the Goldbergs (it is the last variation of the first half, before the French "overture"). For Ostwald to get the variation number wrong betrays a startling level of ignorance. Anyone who undertakes a biography of Gould should know these variations forward and back. As trivial as Ostwald's error may seem, it is startlingly telling.
But also any good Gould biographer should at least bring up the possibility that Gould's trembing hands are trembling with a purpose, not uncontrollably. As absurd as it may sound, Gould sometimes applied "vibrato" to the piano keys. He insisted, in typical eccentric fashion, that this had an effect on the sound. This theory is bolstered by the fact that, early on in the variation, Gould, who often (equally absurdly) "conducted" his own performances, brings his left hand up briefly and makes a vibrato gesture, the sort an orchestral conductor would make when he wants more sweetness from the strings. Thus, it seems likely that Gould is applying his trademark "paino vibrato" throughout the variation, especially since his hands, otherwise, seem very steady and controlled.
So why do I give this biography 3 stars? Because it offers some first hand insights which will be important to Gould fans and Scholars, and because the writing is good, not "inapt" as one reviewer puts it below. This is a page turner, and, for someone for whom writing is an avocation or a side line, Peter Ostwald offers lucid, engaging and well-organized prose. Even with its faults, I put this biography above Payzant's but below Friedrich's. I disagree with the reviewer who claims Gould lived without regrets. It is clear he was deeply troubled, and in many ways a tragic figure. Ostwald's biography communicates the "tragedy of genius" very eloquently. Genius need not be tragic, but part of Ostwald's point is to show, using Gould as a case in point, how the level of intensity genius requires can be its own sort of trap.
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