Gould Video

“The Gould problem,” intones the oracular voice as if from the very slopes of Delphi, “has not gone away.” The Gould problem, the Callas problem, the Rubinstein mystique, the Toscanini magic…these are the essential propositions on which the video documentary must rest: that curious media hybrid in which mortal scriptwriters grapple with immortal artistry, most often to preordained failure.
Kultur Video has added a Glenn Gould documentary to its small but excellent catalogue of arts-oriented video cassettes. The program runs 105 minutes; it was produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1985, and contains enough footage of Gould in action, at or away from his piano, to be worth the attention of anyone who can be reached by the extraordinary playing of this strange, solitary musical visionary. At the same time, it ruins a great deal of that valuable material, all for the sake of what are known in media circles as  production values.
Thus, a tantalizing piece of black-and-white footage, a very young Gould immersed in one of the early-Baroque tidbits he dredged up out of obscurity, is overlain with a succession of color shots of old admirers and friends croaking out their protestations of undying love. Time after time, moments of potential musical fascination are undercut this way; program producers Vincent Tovill and Eric Till, who also do most of the solemn narration, propose the existence of a “Glenn Gould Problem,” and then allow everyone to work on its solution except Gould himself.
What, then, {ITALwas {ENDITAL this so-called problem? It was, simply, the refusal or the failure (or both) of this abnormally bright and insightful musician to satisfy the world’s image of what a musician was supposed to be. His repertory choices went against the grain; his playing, especially of any music before, say, 1830, was eccentric in relation to the way anyone else played this music; then there were the incidental matters: the curious bandy-legged chair, the humming (nay, caterwauling) that became an inseparable part of Gould’s playing, the strange clothing choices, including mufflers and galoshes on hot summer days.
The media latched onto these  eccentricities early in Gould’s career, and you can see the results on this documentary. What other rising young pianist, for example, could show up at a piano warehouse to choose an instrument, with a camera crew also on hand? Who but Glenn Gould would willingly submit to being photographed singing a Mahler song to an apathetic herd of zoo elephants? Reclusive, crowd-dodging misanthrope that he became in his late years, Gould operated from the start with a keen sense of the importance of the image. His very dodging of that image-making process, from his abjuration of live stage performances following his Los Angeles recital of April 10, 1964, created for him the most powerful image of all.
This documentary wastes a lot of time on the image; too little on the man and his music. Out of his copious outpouring of musical wisdom, via radio and television in Canada and Great Britain, the producers have winnowed relatively little: Gould and violinist Yehudi Menuhin exchanging words on the Schoenberg Fantasy they are about to play together, Menuhin baffled by the music, Gould ecstatic. The original of that program, shown a few years ago at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum, is full of warm and fascinating discourse; only a tantalizing snippet shows up on the documentary.
What remains is, of course, never less than fascinating; some — the look of the boyish, exultant iconoclast against the hunched-over, weary, ingrown figure of those final studio sessions — comes across powerful and tragic. But nowhere is Gould shown filling out the dimensions of his own musical visions, of his demonic  joy in kicking over accepted idols, in the reflective processes that led him to his first interpretive decisions about Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and the drastic changes that shaped his later recorded version. These, of course, are the elements that defy even the most sophisticated video cameras, even the all-hearing microphone.
Perhaps those missing parts of the portrait are too much to ask from a public-consumption documentary, even from as responsible a source as the CBC. Television audiences don’t want their idols to elucidate on Bach phrasing; they want them at play in the zoo, or strolling in soft focus through fog-swept wilderness. They want old Dad Gould telling how the three-day-old Baby Glenn’s fingers kept moving, as though he already knew what lay ahead.
Fortunately, there are other ways of solving the “Gould problem,” if problem it be. Otto Friedrich’s recent biography is detailed and soberly written, the point of view of a lifelong fan who also knows how to research. Unfortunately, the fan in Friedrich leads now and then to his book’s few howlers; he lets himself believe, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s own self-serving, error-strewn account of the famous Brahms Concerto episode, even when it contradicts Bernstein’s previous, equally erroneous accounting in an essay in an earlier haphazard and scattershot book called “Glenn Gould Variations.”
Shall I relate that episode one more time? On April 8, 1962, Bernstein made a speech before a New York Philharmonic performance, explaining that he and Gould had disagreed on the way the Brahms D-minor Concerto should go, but that he (Bernstein) was going along out of admiration for the pianist. The ensuing performance (preserved on tape and now distributed by the Philharmonic to donors to the orchestra) was not the least iconoclastic, barring a few details such as a somewwhat softer-than-usual approach to those smashing octaves midway in the first movement.
Yet Harold Schonberg of the New York Times, at that very performance, reacted more to Bernstein’s speech than Gould’s performance  and delivered a killer if completely misinformed review. Punchline: Bernstein, after complaining about Gould’s alleged slow tempos, later made another recording of the same concerto (with Christian Zimerman) even slower, but without disclaimer.
All of which proves nothing, except to detail an extreme example of a media event built on an unfounded premise, but kept aloft by the ongoing legend of Glenn Gould. You don’t need this to approach the essential Gould, however. When you’ve worked your way through that extraordinary legacy of recordings, then you start on the offbeat, unpredictable, intellectual serendipity of the essays collected in Tim Page’s “Glenn Gould Reader.” Then you realize that diversions like this video documentary are mere scratchings around the base of the gigantic stature of Glenn Gould, never to be fully comprehended, always a source of heat and light.