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CD of the Week – Homage to Glenn Gould

The Art of Instrumentation: Homage to Glenn Gould
Nonesuch

Glenn Gould, who died in October 1982, would have been 80 next month. Alive, Gould was known as the quirky Canadian pianist who soaked his hands in boiling water before he touched the keys, and who played Bach as no-one else before or since. Since his death, frozen in time, he has acquired an aura of philosopher and saint, extolled for his gentleness and intellectual rigour, raised to cult status on record. ‘They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old…’

To perpetuate an artist’s legacy in a double-anniversary year requires more than repetitive homage, as record labels have learned to their cost. Gidon Kremer, the Latvian violinist and conductor, once spent a night in Gould’s studio with the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff. He has commissioned a set of variations on Bach themes by contemporary composers whom Gould might, or might not, have liked.

I am fairly sure Gould would have grinned at Alexander Raskatov’s string orchestra riff on the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, and there’s a pair of arrangements for solo violin and vibraphone that cut right to the heart of the Gould sound world. A piece called Bridges to Bach by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli is the standout track. Its shimmering lines for violin, flute, oboe, piano and vibraphone against a string orchestra backdrop afford a meditative tour around the possibilities that Bach presents for the creative mind, a boundless resource for invention.

The safer tracks on this CD are less successful. The most daring is a cross between five of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and two intermezzos from the works of Arnold Schoenberg, set by Steven Kovacs Tickmayer and giving the listener a constant expectation of challenge – just as Gould used to do. Rarely does a recording extend our musical curiosity as much as this one does.

Three Tchaikovsky CDs

Piano concerto #1
Mariinsky Live

The Tchaikovsky Competition winner Daniil Trifonov makes light work of the great concerto, accompanied by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Massive power gives way to the most delicate pianissimi and a constant sense of discovery. This performance is close to epic, diminished only by the solo encores – mostly Liszt settings of Schubert songs that somehow disempower the concerto’s impact.

Symphonies 4 & 5
LPO Live

The London Philharmonic is not, on present form, London’s pride. The woodwinds lack colour, the strings are mushy and the brass less forceful than it used to be. These are live recordings from the Royal Festival Hall, a smudgy venue, but the band should know the hall well enough to overcome its blight. Vladimir Jurowski conducts.

6th Symphony
DG

The Seoul Philharmonic has risen under Myung-Whun Chung’s direction to world status and sounds ever better each year. Produced by Michael Fine, a former head of DG, this recording has bloom to die for and real depth of field in the aural illusion. Chung’s interpretation is classy and unfussy, carefully restraining pathos in the finale. The filler, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, detracts more than it adds.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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