Glenn Gould: Not Bach, but Berg

Glenn Gould: Not Bach, but Berg


norman lebrecht

September 28, 2021

Another reminiscence from Daniel Poulin:

On this anniversary date of Glenn Gould’d birth it seems appropriate to celebrate the work he most often played in concert during his public career. Surprisingly it is not Bach’s Goldberg Variations -he played them no less that 24 times in concert; it is rather Alban Berg’s Op.1, his Piano Sonata. We know of at least 36 different occasions where he performed it, including during his famous Russian tour.
An anecdote worth repeating: on October 19/1953 in Peterborough Ontario he offered a recital featuring Bach (Fifth Partita), Beethoven (Sonata Op.110) and the Berg piano sonata. Now, in 1953 the music of the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg Webern) was quite new territory for most audiences in North America. In order to prepare the public for what it was about to hear, Gould gave a little speech -with much enthusiasm- explaining the nature and quality of the work he was to play next. After performing the Sonata he got a standing ovation with sustained loud applause. “Well, since you seemed to have liked it so much, I will play it again for you”, said a very happy Gould. Needless to say, the reaction after the repeat performance was quite subdued, the applause very polite. Everybody was afraid he would play it a third time.
Glenn Gould’s relationship with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata is often overlooked. Indeed, he recorded the work eight times between 1952 and 1974 in a variety of circumstances: live and studio recordings, radio and television broadcasts, and a documentary.
Here is the recorded broadcast of March 13/1969 (CBC), Toronto. 13’33”



  • John Borstlap says:

    A very amorphous piece consisting of dripping despair, sounding like a piano version of an orchestral piece – it is not pianistic at all.

    This becomes very clear in the orchestral version, scored by Dutch composer Theo Verbeij:

  • John Soutter says:

    So typical of our American cousins’ lack of conviction at the final shove … and to have their bad faith called out by a Canadian – of all people!

  • RW2013 says:

    The most auspicious Op.1.

  • E says:

    Played. Thanks!

  • Phoebe Greene Linden says:

    Brilliant! Thank you for reminding us that Glenn Gould is not only a genius interpreter of Bach: this Berg Sonata is gorgeous.

  • Hilary says:

    very slow first page…it will shock anyone who knows the piece.

  • “Gould gave a speech – with much enthusiasm – explaining the nature and quality of the work he was to play next”

    There was a time when new music didn’t need to be preceded by a defense.

    Most of the music we know today as great didn’t pass out Cliff Notes before it premiered and wouldn’t have been allowed any if it had asked.

    It had to stand on it on its own legs and hold the audience’s attention as a piece of music rather than as a lecture topic.

    And did.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Interestingly, the premiere of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony took place in a rather small hall in one of the prince’s Vienna palaces for an invited (noble) audience. The music was inspired by arch-enemy Napoleon and celebrated republican victory over feudal suppression. At least, that was the inspiration. The piece was not accompanied by any explanation, and was received with a mixture of enthusiasm and perplexity, in spite of its revolutionary originality. Imagine an introductory lecture…. nobody would have wanted to hear the music.

    • Hilary says:

      piano duet playing at home will have been many peoples way of getting to know the classics up until the early 20th century . It would be an understatement to say that society/ culture technology have changed. Your observations are a reflection of that to some extent .

  • Paul Joseph Ostrowski says:

    Nice but ( speaking for myself ), does it really compare with Bach?

  • Nijinsky says:

    I’m glad to hear Berg, although at times Gould sounds quite frustrated, as if he’s trying to push the piano down deeper to get it to do what he wants.

    And I’m sorry, but I think, for example, that Couperin is a greater composer than Bach, simply because it’s art, not produced, and I think had more influence for it’s supple fluidity, Except that’s not as apparent because it happens by itself, rather than given rewards for how produced it is. You might not have Chopin, Faure and quite a few more in other idioms Couperin didn’t write for, as in what’s more natural for the voice, rather than the keyboard…..

    Although I have to laugh at Gould playing Vivaldi, I think Vivaldi in ways is more art…..

    sorry, I think Bach as the bread of music, gets to be too much gluten, and can cause inflammation, no matter how produced it is.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Perhaps not the only way to get to know Berg’s op. 1 (compare for example Matusko Uchida) but certainly an involving and approachable and even luxurious performance. Somehow — something oddly programmatic that Gould brings to it — it reminds me of some things that were being done in film music, particularly American film music, starting in the late 1930s and continuing into the 1960s, a time when — as Oscar Levant pointed out in or another of his books — the legion of American film composers was paying quite bit of attention to the second Viennese school. In subtle ways film goers and listeners were being prepped to hear and accept quite a bit more “tuneless” dissonance than concert goers were, but the trend was clear.

    Speaking of Uchida, years ago I heard her in recital here in Milwaukee where she played something by Webern (perhaps the variations?) and after the applause she told the audience that sometimes she felt that it was useful to immediately re-hear a possibly “new” and “difficult” work again. So she played it again. Of course it was brief in the best Webern tradition. But the applause was stronger after the second performance.