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Music Review: Glenn Gould – The Acoustic Orchestrations – Works by Scriabin and Sibelius

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Those familiar with the life and work of piano virtuoso Glenn Gould would probably not be surprised that his passion for innovation continues to resonate decades after his death in 1982 at the untimely age of 50.

The career of the Canadian pianist, who would have turned 80 last year, is one of the most storied in the annals of 20th century classical music. After shooting to superstardom with his landmark recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in 1955, Gould soon developed a reputation for both brilliance and eccentricity (after conducting him in 1957, George Szell said, “that nut’s a genius”). Among his idiosyncrasies were an abhorrence of coldhe was often seen wearing heavy coats and gloves in one form or another—and the distinctive chair, fashioned for him as a child, that traveled with him to all his performances. His life was memorably recreated in 1993’s award-winning Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

At heart, though, Gould harbored a deep dislike of public presentations. He kiddingly called his credo GPAADAK (the “Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds”). Little wonder that by the mid-1960s, he abandoned performing altogether.

Instead, he focused his attention on the studio and a “love affair with the microphone.” In the case of the recently released The Acoustic Orchestrations, the focus is bringing fresh perspectives to old works. The 1972 recording, originally issued by CBS records in the 1980s, has been fully re-enhanced here with a technique that long intrigued him, consisting of a sort of microphone “choreography.” In cinematic parlance, it would be the equivalent of wide-angle and close-up “shots” of the music.

The multiple-microphone method positioned sets of microphones not only inside, but at varying distances from the piano. It combined with the multitrack recording technology that came of age in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, allowing the artist to choose what thematic and structural elements to emphasize in the works. The result was a language of spatial effects equivalent to the color palette of a painter.

The centerpiece of the album (which also features little-known pieces by Jean Sibelius) is the extraordinary “Piano Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp Major,” by Alexander Scriabin, which was Gould’s choice as the focus of his grand experiment. Even a layman’s ear can capture the dynamic interplay of acoustics that characterizes this newly restored version, from its dramatic rumbling beginnings to its impressionistic layers reminiscent of Debussy.

In the liner notes, Paul Théberge, a professor of acoustic and recording technology who was key in bringing the project to fruition, notes that “with his technique of acoustic orchestration, Gould could be said to play the piano and to ‘play’ the room as well, thus integrating the possibilities of performance and acoustics in an entirely new way.” For those interested in musicology, the release also includes a CD-ROM that animates the stereo tracks from the original recording sessions, side by side with the corresponding sheet music. The tracks can be imported to a computer, where users can create their own mixes.

One can’t help but think of the possibilities had Gould lived to encounter the digital age and its myriad technologies. Nevertheless, the creative force behind the groundbreaking techniques so artfully on display in The Acoustic Orchestrations – Works By Scriabin And Sibelius, and that contributed so greatly in expanding the boundaries of the instrument he loved, still reverberates today.

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About Lidia de Leon

Lidia de Leon is a writer and former magazine editor based in Miami, Florida. Her weblog, Musings -- Creative & Otherwise, covers the arts, film, music, books, and culture.