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CD of the Week – Glenn Gould: The Schwarzkopf Tapes

By (October 3, 2012) No Comment

Glenn Gould: The Schwarzkopf Tapes

This is the kind of worst-ever record that producers dream up drunk and forget by morning. Except, in this case, they decided to make it.

Putting the perfectionist German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a studio with the outwardly chaotic Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was a mismatch of Olympian dimensions. All they had in common was a passion for the songs of Richard Strauss, regarded in the mid-1960s as a romantic dinosaur. Gould considered him a genius; Schwarzkopf had known the composer quite well. Beyond that, the pair were chalk and cheese.

Schwarzkopf, recalls producer Paul Myers in a booklet note, thought she was getting an expert accompanist to her exquisite voice. Gould thought he was the center of attention. The soprano turned up in a New York studio in January 1966 with her control-freak husband, Walter Legge. Gould like his studio stifling hot. Schwarzkopf said heat killed her voice.

The pianist refused to discuss tempi and interpretation before they got to work. At breaks, he showed no interest in shared listening of the recorded takes. While Schwarzkopf and Legge frowned over replays behind the glass wall, Gould carried on playing the piano. Schwarzkopf stuck to the printed score. Gould went off on riffs. The third day of sessions was cancelled by mutual consent.

Fourteen years later, three songs were released in a Gould jubilee album. Three more were considered unpublishable. They are issued here for the first time. Worth hearing? Indispensably so. The strain on Schwarzkopf’s glittering instrument is audible at both top and bottom, but the faint patina harshness endows her voice with endearing warmth. Gould’s opening passages – especially in the torch-song Morgen – are straight out of dreamland, a set of fantasies on a near-imaginary Strauss that smash the glass windows of literalist protectionism. In the closing lines Schwarzkopf can barely be recognized as herself, extended as never before by a creative competitor.

In between the two triptychs of songs, Sony have packed Gould’s Toronto performance of Strauss’s concerto-like Burleske, together with a 15-minute Gould rehearsal in which he growls along to his playing, finishing up with the comment: ‘OK, not bad. But not good.’ Utterly inimitable.

3 Mahler CDs

1st symphony

The pulse in this performance by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony is inconsistent from one movement to the next. Irony is crucially absent in the third movement. The live sound (Tim Handley) is rich and transparent and the orchestra is in fine form, but the Mahler message is missing.

1st symphony

Cologne’s Gurzenich orchestra learned to play Mahler from Mahler himself. Its sound has an authentic ferocity and the narrative is confidently driven by Markus Stenz, a little too fast at times and without underlying ironic contradictions. The brass playing, though, is supersonic.

2nd symphony

Myung-Whun Chung’s tempi are exemplary and the Seoul Philharmonic playing is fiery, yet note-perfect. Doubts nag in the low strings of the andante and the soprano soloist, Myung Joo Lee, wallows in her own vibrato. But the interpretative line remains tight throughout and the full voices of four Korean choruses deliver a mighty resurrection.

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.