Diablog: Glenn Gould at 75

Oh no. What is that large object sitting on your desk?

Nothing, just Glenn Gould: The Complete Original Jacket Collection. It was released on September 25, 2007 to commemorate Gould's 75th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his death.

It looks bulky. It looks, in fact, more than 10 inches wide. It looks as though we're not making the rent this month. Have you lost your mind? This thing must have cost you a fortune.

But flip open the lid and what do you see?

A whole lot of CD spines, numbered 1 to 71.

And that includes nine double-disc sets, for a total of 80 CDs. Even if you pay the full list price of $221.98, as I happily did, that still comes to less than three bucks a disc, so don't worry, we'll make the rent.

You paid list? Why not shop around? Ordinarily you're a pretty aggressive user of shopping engines.

There weren't any significantly better deals and waiting for one would have been unwise. I'm still scarred by the experience of shopping for Sviatoslav Richter in Prague. It's been issued and reissued, most recently for as little as $75 for the 15-disc set. That's $5 a disc. But now that it's out of print again, you can Google your brains out without finding a decent deal. Some slimeball is selling it for $899 on one well-known site even as we speak. When I first saw the Gould set for sale online, I thought about it for five minutes, then placed my order. I predict it won't be in print forever.

Safe bet. OK, you got a good deal. But a cautious foreground listener like you will take you weeks, maybe months, to get through a first hearing.


And years to truly assimilate this recorded monument.

Your point being?

Forget I said anything.

What will happen, in fact, is this. I'll be able to live through one of the golden ages of musical history, the recording career of Glenn Gould, starting in 1955 when he suddenly came out of nowhere and turned Bach into a chart sensation. And I'll be able to experience Gould as generations of LP buyers did, since each disc (or disc set) is a facimile of the original vinyl issue, with the original track lineup and reproduction of LP jacket artwork both front and back.

Are you going to read all those liner notes shrunk down to the size of a CD sleeve? Better polish your reading glasses. And what's this, a CD-sized hardcover book?

Yup. The book includes CD track numbering for each disc, something absent from the facsimiles. It also offers cursory notes of a few sentences per album with factual milestones and the occasional quote.

A perfect job, then?

Well, not quite. I'll have to remember to pinch the cardboard sleeves as I remove them from the box--otherwise the discs tend to slip out. But I prefer that to having to fight each one out of the sleeve. I also wish the sources of quotes had been identified, especially those from people other than Gould himself. There are some fairly juicy critical denunciations. Still, considering the scale of the project, these are small quibbles. The booklet also reproduces art from a few of the many Gould reissues, including my boxed sets of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Which got you addicted in the first place. Didn't you transfer those LP boxes to analog cassette? You once told me that whenever you can't write, you play your Gould WTC tapes.

Now they're my Gould WTC MP3s, and yes, they help whenever my back is to the wall. They're the sound of a serene and well-ordered mind at work. Bach's, as well as Gould's. But much as I relish the years I'll spend listening to this set, the prospect also makes me sad.

Because Gould died so young, just half a century old?

There's that, of course. But it also troubles me that we probably won't see another Gould. Here was a man who retired from the concert stage at the age of 31 and devoted the last two decades of his life to making what he deemed perfect recordings. With squadrons of engineers in attendance, he'd record take after take, experimenting with tempo, articulation, and other nuances, then re-record tiny slivers of analog tape to be spliced in by hand. In these waning days of the CD era, the technology has gotten more versatile--I'll bet Gould would have loved Pro Tools! But it's no longer possible for the record labels to give a classical artist the kind of expensive and unstinting support Columbia must have given Gould. In a few more years the recording industry as we know it will barely exist at all.

It'll be little more than a collection of four fat back catalogues.

And this release is certainly a best-case scenario for the marketing of back catalogue, so thank you, Sony Classical. But are we better off now than when Gould first took the world by storm? Think of this. Back in 1955, it was still possible for a handsome young pianist to electrify the world with a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. There are still great classical recording artists--to say otherwise would be an insult to the eye-opening talent of, say, Joshua Bell. But the supremely eccentric career of Glenn Gould is something that can't happen anymore. And that reduced realm of artistic possibility makes the world a poorer place.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.

JB's picture

Thanks for the tip!They must have done an "underground" debut of this album

D.M. Chow's picture

As the "slimeball" who listed (and sold!) the 15-CD Richter collection for $899, I would strongly advise Mark to watch his language. Unless, of course, he'd like to call the first buyers of Van Gogh paintings, and the investors who bought Microsoft shares at IPO, "supreme slimeballs"?