Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
A film by Yosif Feyginberg
The date is May 2nd, 1957. Stalin died only four years before and perestroika is still a long way off. However, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who is just 24, arrives in Moscow for an exceptional tour: he is the first North American musician to play behind the iron curtain. This is the story that Glenn Gould in Russia tells by revealing documents from the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that had remained classified for years. Witness accounts from musicians such as Ashkenazy and Rostropovitch, parts of the original recordings of Gould’s concerts in Moscow and Leningrad, as well as a recording that had
never been released before of his lecture-recital in Leningrad make this an invaluable documentary revealing an aspect of Glenn Gould’s artistry that few people are aware of.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM 2.0 (Historical material: Mono)
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Korean
Running time: 60 mins
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W: 3754520.zz6_GLENN_GOULD_RUSSIAN_JOURNEY.html
GLENN GOULD: THE RUSSIAN JOURNEY • Glenn Gould (pn); various artists; Yosif Feyginberg (dir) • C MAJOR 714108 (DVD 56:00)
What could have easily been a dull and routine affair—after all, little film footage and few recordings exist of Gould’s historic May 1957 tour of the USSR—turns out to be a stunning and fascinating film that riveted my attention from first to last. Part of this documentary’s charm, and value, comes from the fact that Gould’s trip is explored in full detail, including his initial shock at not being able to sleep in a double bed and a postcard he sent back home to his dog! All of this, plus the warm reminiscences of the men and women who met him, acted as guides and/or translators, or heard him play, not to mention the actual voice of Gould himself recalling the ups and downs of his journey, adds layer upon layer to the story until you actually start to feel that you are watching a documentary made at the time, as if Glenn Gould himself had been able to participate in its making.
What caused such a furore? As this video tells us, part of it was the fact that Bach, so long a musical persona non grata in the Soviet Union for his strong association with religious works, came as a revelation to most of his Soviet audience. The hall for his first concert in Moscow—the complete Bach The Art of Fugue, a work most people had never even heard—was not even half full when he began. Partway through the first half, however, people ran out of the hall to pay phones and called friends, relatives, colleagues, and told them that they had to come down ASAP and hear this man. By the time the concert ended, the hall was packed, not only with breathless lay spectators but also with musicians, and the Russian audience went absolutely berserk. In ensuing performances, and there were several, Gould opened up his repertoire to include the other love of his life, composers of the Second Viennese School. He even gave a lecture-demonstration of their music before an audience of lay listeners, students, and even professors at the Conservatory. The entire Russian musical world seemed to want to absorb Glenn Gould like a sponge. As one of them put it, halfway through the concert-lecture on Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, some of the students became restless; it was all a bit too new and foreign for them, and they begged him to play Bach. “We brought him back down,” the commentator said. But Gould responded positively to the rapt attention he received, and to a certain extent I think that it was upon his return to North American concert life that he became increasingly restless about performing in person because he felt that the majority of audience members were inattentive or only half-listening.
Yet his impact on the Russians, and theirs on them, went much further than just playing and talking to them. Sviatoslav Richter, at the time (as Gould relates) practically unknown in the West, went up to him after a concert, congratulated him, and invited him to one of his own. Mstislav Rostropovich then later recalls something that Richter had told him: “I can play Bach as well as Gould, but I won’t do it because it would take me too much time to rehearse it and too much concentration!”
Nowadays, there is a counter-reaction to Gould’s Bach. Once viewed as ultra-modern, crisp and unbelievably lucid in the revealing of the inner voices, it is now sometimes thought of as willfully distorted: the slow sections are played too fast, the fast sections even faster or too slow. Yet for others, Gould’s architectonic approach to the music remains miraculous simply because, for all its clarity and consistent tempo, it lives and breathes. It has feeling despite, not because, of its rapid pace. And that is what is often missing in the playing of modern-day pianists who approach Bach; yet all of them should be thankful to Gould for making it acceptable to play Bach on the piano and not only or always on the harpsichord or clavichord. The crisp, staccato sound of his particular Steinway model is forever etched in the minds of his listeners.
After Gould returned to Canada he was unable to go back to the USSR again; after 1964, the welcoming window of opportunity closed for a very long time. But he continued to talk about the Russians on his CBC television programs, to play their music (the video includes clips of him performing the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and a Prokofiev sonata), and to talk about the difficulties the Russian people faced under the Soviet system. He sent his recordings to them to be reproduced on the Melodiya label and continued to receive warm letters from those he had met and some he had not. It was, in short, a very cathartic experience for him, even if he did beg his doctor for “those little yellow pills” (valium) that calmed him down so he could take them on his trip.
This is a fascinating and extraordinarily well-put-together documentary of an exceptional trip, and time, in the life and career of an exceptional pianist. I highly recommend it.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Work(s) by Various
Glenn Gould (Piano)
Be the first to review this title