All-Consuming Yet Inscrutable
Pianists Rudolf Serkin and Glenn Gould, Boxed
Listen to this article:
Rudolf Serkin, The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Sony, 2017), born March 28, 1903, died May 8, 1988
Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations: The Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions (Sony, 2017), born September 25, 1932, died October 4, 1982
EXPANSIVE YET FORBIDDING, imperious yet embracing, pianist Rudolf Serkin mixed gravity with guilt to build a towering legacy. His recordings confirm him as a titan of the old school, a European who branded piano’s core repertoire with an air of authenticity. His philosophy of interpretive submission spurred rebelliousness in the next generation, and he hovers over classical piano’s firmament with peers like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Mieczysław Horszowski.
By contrast, Glenn Gould, the Canadian, had enough peculiarities to fuel several careers. Deluxe editions from these polar opposites reveal new secrets about the first century of piano recordings. Gould made classical music’s best-selling album in 1955 by playing a dormant epic from Bach, The Goldberg Variations. Serkin performed and taught Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms with stern self-abasement, wincing whenever he had to “patch” a wrong note using a tape splice. To Serkin, this meant “cheating,” and sent his notorious practice regimen into overdrive.
As an Austro-Hungarian with the stiffest upper lip, Serkin didn’t put his stamp on music so much as hold up a glass windowpane to it; his reverence for the composer trumped both virtuosic display and emotional indulgence.
In their recondite Serkin biography from 2003, Rudolf Serkin: A Life, Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber quote Thomas Frost, his longtime Columbia producer. Frost characterizes Serkin’s performance style better than many critics:
“I could compare it to a mountain climber struggling to get up those rocks. And he succeeds because he is so intent on succeeding and conquering the mountain. If some young person who is a natural-born athlete does it, it looks like child’s play. It’s less interesting, in a way. You don’t know whether the person who struggles is going to make it or not. And actually, his struggle sometimes made his music making more interesting. It gave it more power, more poignancy. Some of the people who heard him practice at Marlboro thought that it was almost a masochistic ritual, that he could already play these passages, but he would do them over and over and over and over. It was his work ethic.”
To start with Rudolf Serkin, turn up the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Szell, 1966. Then any Beethoven sonata, or anything from the Marlboro Festival series, which has lots of juicy links on its pages. Tim Page recommends this Glenn Gould Salzburg concert from 1959; his 1955 Goldberg holds up well. Other Goldbergs: Simone Dinnerstein, 2007, Andras Schiff on a spellbinding ECM recording, 2003, and Beatrice Rana, 2017.
Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), by Paul Elie, describes the 1955 Gould sessions and tells Bach’s story from Pablo Casals to Simone Dinnerstein. Stay tuned for more on Dinnerstein later this year.
Next month, Jena Friedman releases Not Funny (Atria/One Signal Books), arguing that ignoring That Narcissist stings more than any misdemeanor fundraiser, and slicing satire works like medicine in our bleak political climate. Her interview busts out of its can next issue.
Mozart in Motion, by Patrick Mackie (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2023) details the tensions of 1780s Strasburg and Vienna through Mozart’s fragile elegance. Watch truthdig for the June review.
Deliver Me From Nowhere, by Warren Zanes (Crown, May 2023), which covers Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, makes for uneasy reading during this season of Ticketmaster rapacity and bloated self-important swill from The Critic-Manager Formerly Known as Jon Landau. Watch the Los Angeles Review of Books in May.
album of the month
Gorillaz, Cracker Island (Parlophone)
zappagram, not the guitarist, capsule feed with new releases, anniversaries, reissues, and stuff everybody’s linking to
music journalism insider, where thinkers go to get the feelsies
this run-out groove has a thoughtful discussion of album sequencing
substack archive: Lars Vogt, Igor Levit, The Embarrassment, Nick Lowe
more links at the riley rock index: obits, bylines, youtube finds, reference sites
(@timrileyauthor “WE HAVE A WINNER for Superhero Insults: from The Boys: ‘Jesus, it's like Ashton Kutcher f'd a clown fish!’”)
twitter likes: the Nicky Hopkins doc (The Session Man) launches a fundraiser to help cover song licensing costs. Give generously.
pinterest: never too much Keith Moon, obscure record label logos, and glossies make the best postcards.
beacons.ai: crawling through the wreckage