January 3, 2005


Striking Gould In D.C.: 50 Years Ago, a Grand Pianist Caught Washington's Ear (Tim Page, January 2, 2005, Washington Post)

Fifty years ago this afternoon, a 22-year- old Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould walked out onto the stage of the Phillips Collection and played his first American recital.

Gould, already famous in his native land for brilliance, originality and what some considered eccentricity, did not disappoint in Washington. Instead of the usual debut fare (some flashy Liszt or Rachmaninoff, perhaps, with one of the more popular Beethoven sonatas thrown in for gravitas), Gould opened his program with music by the obscure English renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons, then moved on to the even more obscure Dutch Renaissance composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. True, he played a sonata by Beethoven (Op. 109) but also one by the Austrian modernist Alban Berg, as well as Anton Webern's eternally elusive "Variations" and a handful of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Then as now, the capital area tended to empty out around the New Year, and it is doubtful that many people attended Gould's recital on the wet, warm second day of 1955. The world was its typical messy self that Sunday: Anybody who skimmed the front page of The Washington Post would have learned that the United States and the Soviet Union were even angrier than usual with each other; that the national death toll from holiday traffic accidents was expected to top that of the previous year, with more than 500 fatalities recorded since Christmas Eve; that a teenager from Bethesda, depressed by failing grades, had shot himself with the same rifle that had once won him trophies for marksmanship.

But Gould came as good news, at least as far as The Post's chief music critic, Paul Hume, was concerned. "January 2 is early for predictions, but it is unlikely that the year 1955 will bring us a finer piano recital than that played yesterday afternoon in the Phillips Gallery," he wrote in an article printed on Page 10 of the next day's paper. "We shall be lucky if it brings others of equal beauty and significance.

"Glenn Gould of Toronto, Canada, and barely into his twenties, was the pianist. Few pianists play the instrument so beautifully, so lovingly, so musicianly in manner, and with such regard for its real nature and its enormous literature," Hume continued. "Glenn Gould is a pianist with rare gifts for the world. It must not long delay hearing and according him the honor and audience he deserves. We know of no pianist anything like him of any age."

With the exception of his celebrated pan of singing first daughter Margaret Truman (which elicited a threatening letter from the White House), this is probably the most famous review Hume ever wrote. And rightly so, for Gould's debut stands out as one of the highest peaks in the history of Washington musical life -- an unheralded Sunday afternoon concert in a small venue that helped set a magnificent career into play.

A little more than a week later, Gould repeated the program in New York, a city he detested. Still, it was in Manhattan that the sultans of the music industry ran their trade, and it was there that Gould was promptly signed to what proved a lifetime recording contract with Columbia Masterworks (which later morphed into CBS Masterworks and later still into Sony Classical). His first disc was devoted to Bach's "Goldberg" Variations; when it was released in early 1956, it made Gould world-famous -- and world-famous he remains.

What a curious thing is genius.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 3, 2005 12:00 AM
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