Robert Fulford's column about Glenn Gould's 1957 Russian tour

(Globe and Mail, March 11, 1998)

The great hall of the Moscow Conservatory was only half filled on May 7, 1957, the first night of Glenn Gould's first European tour. At the age of 24 Gould was already well launched in North America, having played with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein and recorded Bach's Goldberg Variations. But in Russia he was largely unknown--until the May 7 concert changed everything. News of his talent flashed around Moscow, and tickets for his remaining concerts sold out the next day. He "became famous literally overnight," according to Sofia Moshevich, a pianist who grew up in the Soviet Union and now lives in Toronto.

She discusses Gould's Russian trip, a great event in Canadian cultural history, in an article for GlennGould, the twice-yearly magazine of the Gould Foundation (P.O. Box 190, 260 Adelaide Street East, Toronto M5A 1N1). An engaging combination of scholarship and nostalgia, GlennGould resurrects obscure Gould interviews and reviews, covers new Gould books, announces events like the international Gould conference in Toronto in September, 1999, and charts the progress of his reputation around the world. The issue containing the Russian piece also has a fascinating article about Gould's status in Japan, written by Junichi Miyazama, the writer and critic who regularly translates Gould material into Japanese.

In Russia Gould gave eight concerts, four each in Moscow and Leningrad. He was unprepared for the exuberance of the audiences--the flowers thrown on the stage, the demands for multiple encores, then the five-minute standing ovations with rhythmic handclapping. In Leningrad they put extra chairs on-stage and assigned extra police to control the crowds. They sold all 1,300 seats plus 1,100 standing-room places. Gould said, "It was overwhelming and just a bit frightening." It was partly due to Russia's isolation. He was the first North American pianist to play there since the Second World War, so he was a messenger from the outside world. He felt like "the first musician to land on Mars..."

A passionate missionary for the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers, Gould made their work the core of a concert for conservatory students and teachers in Moscow. When he announced his program, there was (he wrote in a letter) "a rather alarming and temporarily uncontrollable murmuring from the audience....." Schoenberg's music was not considered legitimate in the Soviet Union and some students seemed unable to decide whether to leave or stay. Two people did walk out: "elderly professors who probably felt that I was attempting to pervert the taste of the young." He played Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, and Ernst Krenek, plus Bach.

Someone in that hall was making a tape, which eventually found its way to Paris. In 1983, a year after Gould's death, it appeared as Glenn Gould: Concert de Moscou, a CD on the Harmonia Mundi label. It's entirely unedited, and it would horrify Gould, whose recording standards were famously rigorous. It includes his spoken commentary (and the translation into Russian), but he's so far off mike that you have to double the volume to make out what he's saying. He sounds young, confident, and a little like the CBC announcers he had been hearing all his life ("Within a decade, Schoenberg had begun to formulate a principle..."). It is the most incompetent recording I own, and I wouldn't part with it for anything.

After Glenn returned to Toronto, he amused his friends with stories about Russian officials. A translator saw him glance at women standing outside a hotel and told him, without being asked, that they were definitely not prostitutes since the Soviet Union had no prostitutes. Gould reported that when he found a piano he liked and asked that it be moved from one hall to another so he could use it a second time, his hosts quickly agreed with him and then began fabricating endless excuses for not getting it done. In the end he believed that Russia had no professional piano movers. Pianos came from their makers in Germany, and stayed forever where the men from the factory left them. He decided that this so embarrassed his hosts that they couldn't admit the truth.

Alongside Moshevich's article, GlennGould runs one of the most striking reviews ever written about Gould. The writer, Heinrich Neuhaus, then 69, was a great piano teacher whose students included Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. In the summer of 1957, Neuhaus wrote in the journal Culture and Life, "I tell you quite frankly that Gould is not a pianist, he is a phenomenon." Neuhaus immediately understood something that much of the musical world didn't fully grasp until years later--that Gould was building a new bridge to Bach. His interpretations were so convincing, Neuhaus said, that he might have been a pupil of Bach himself; he could imagine Gould sharing Bach's meals and inflating the organ bellows for the master. "In this sense Gould is not 24, he is nearly 300," Neuhaus wrote, and the possessor of "great talent, great mastery, high spirit, and deep soul." Ever since Gould's visit, says Sofia Moshevich, the playing of Bach in Russia has been divided into two periods, before Gould and after Gould. As Neuhaus wrote, "Gould's appearance was quite an event in our life."

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