Mozart: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Central Question: Is sarcasm possible in classical music?

Mozart: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Michael Peck
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The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould designed several alter egos, extreme archetypes of the classical-music world: British critic Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornewaite, American gadfly Theodore Slutz, and German musicologist Karlheinz Klopweisser, to name a few. Inhabiting one or another, he’d write bizarre liner notes for, and later negative reviews of, his own albums. For his studio recording of Mozart’s complete piano sonatas, Gould seems to have costumed himself in yet another personality, this one the least imaginary: the precocious, obsessive-compulsive musician who loathes Mozart.

The set was Gould’s attempt to poke fun at misconceived performances of the composer’s solo work, but it was simultaneously a way to conjure Mozart as he heard him—derivative, gauche, almost moronic. His Mozart is derision without gestures or words, unless you count the frequent background humming (a habit of the pianist’s that functions like a signature on the corner of the music). It is the equivalent of defacing eighteen Rembrandts.

Most fascinating about the sonatas is the way Gould handles Mozart’s tempos, shifts, and dramatic indications: he ignores them completely. He treats the composer’s leit-motifs like something a clever but silly child might have invented, and replaces them with his own pointillist electricity. The result is a dopier, livelier, and much stranger Mozart; compared to the interpretations of his contemporary and nemesis Vladimir Horowitz, Gould also makes Mozart simply harrowing.

Overemphasis dominates Gould’s rampage through the sonatas: tempos are exploded to hyperbole, downplaying Mozart’s emphases to skittish tinkling, while accompanying bass lines are amplified to perverted clanging noises. Every note is filled with deranged clarity and ridicule. Slow movements disintegrate, as though Gould were falling asleep at the keyboard, while the faster movements are manically hurried through. Sonata no. 11 is deliriously ponderous at half the time of other takes; Rondo alla Turca, a fervidly overplayed ditty, becomes awkward and despondent, a dirge of alienating gracelessness. The beginning of Sonata no. 12 is absolutely warped, followed by a crazed allegro assai at breakneck velocity. This is pianism in italics and caps.

How Gould achieves this is similar to Bartok’s loopy satire of Shostakovich’s war march from the Seventh Symphony, or to the piano-demolishing extravaganza of Harpo Marx hammering through a difficult Rachmaninov prelude. But it also invokes Sid Vicious’s desecration of Sinatra, Michael Haneke’s violent subversion of cinematic violence, Albert Cossery’s antirevolutionaries in The Jokers, who aggrandize praise for the government in order to topple it. The modus operandi is sabotage, but sabotage to such a degree of overstatement that it surpasses mere highbrow spoofing. Gould ridicules Mozart by simply elaborating on his compositions, until the act of exaggerating becomes an art in itself.

These Mozart sessions are vintage Gould, freed from his veneration for Bach and fully at liberty to inflict on the score his irreverent vision of Mozart as a bastardizer of Bachian counterpoint. Listening to Mozart’s music is not really the point: the point is to listen to Gould playing Gould playing a burlesque Mozart—or not so much playing Mozart as revising him, with fussy hatred and rarefied cruelty, to fit his own disdain for the music. The set highlights what Gould perceives as the cheap embellishment and unintentional parody of the sonatas; in the process, it shines a spotlight on his own neuroticism as well.

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