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Jonathan Woolf
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Not available in the USA

CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline


Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [13:04]
Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [20:02]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22) [22:48]
Glenn Gould (piano)
rec. Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City, 20-29 June 1956 
NAXOS 8.111299 [55:55]
Experience Classicsonline

I don’t know why I received a jolt when I saw that Gould’s Beethoven sonatas had been Naxosed. Perhaps it was the early death or the feeling that he is somehow still very much our contemporary. At any event these recordings were made in June 1956 so they are perfectly valid entrants in the Naxos Historical line.

So should you have missed a Sony incarnation this is an inexpensive way to get hold of his frequently bizarre Beethoven performances. Op.109 opens relatively stably though sketchy as to detail. Variation three of the finale is absurdly fast and the succeeding variations fluctuate wildly. The effect physically and perhaps psychologically – always a dangerous area to psychoanalyse Gouldian performance – is to destabilise accepted structural and emotive norms. Op.110’s opening movement lacks the kind of madcap caprice that so disfigured the earlier work though it is rather perfunctory. The scherzo lacks expressive depth – or deigns to find such in the music – whilst the  finale features some stratospheric chording before the final fugal episode.

Op.111 is an extreme example of Gouldian perversity. If you didn’t know the performance especially well you might think that it had been speeded up. This is particularly true of the first movement which becomes, in Gould’s hands, a Keystone Kops episode. It is quite clearly an anti-reading, one dedicated to subverting Beethovenian hierarchies. Gould wrote specifically about the ’nonsense’ he felt had accrued to the last sonatas and quartets, railing at such as Huxley and Mann, whom amongst then contemporary novelists he singled out for especial criticism. Presumably he found their edifice building, the philosophical superstructures they propounded and the Sophoclean heights they found in late Beethoven, anathema to his purely pianistic view of the matter. The result was a clash of cultures the like of which music seldom sees – or hears. The emigré Europeans with their highfalutin’ fantasies were being scythed down by the North American pragmatist. The results though were, and are, bizarre. The irony is that it’s still Mann and Huxley’s Beethoven that largely prevails. Gould’s is bleached bones.

By all means acquaint yourself with this well transferred Naxos issue – but be prepared, if you’ve not heard the performances, for an act of didactic defiance rather than a musical compromise.

Jonathan Woolf 



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